Bhutan Birding Tours
The Kingdom of Bhutan (simply “Bhutan” hereafter) is a landlocked country in the Eastern Himalayas of the Indian Subcontinent. Its capital city is Thimphu, located in the west of the country, and the country’s only international airport is nearby in the town of Paro just west of the capital. Bhutan is the second-least-populous nation (after the Maldives) in South Asia and is bordered by Tibet to the north, Tibet and the Indian states of Sikkim (beyond which is Nepal) and West Bengal to the west, and the Indian states of Assam, West Bengal, and Arunachal Pradesh to the south and east.
Unlike most other countries in the Indian Subcontinent, Bhutan has never been colonized in its history and has developed a distinct national identity based on Buddhism. However, like the other countries in the region Bhutan has a fascinating cultural history, some of the exact facts have likely been lost due to a fire in the ancient capital city of Punakha in 1827! However, it is more than likely that aspects of Bhutanese culture was impacted by Mongol warlords and Chinese dynasties (from what is now Mongolia and China respectively). Since the 17th century, Bhutan has been known as “Druk yul” – which means country of the Drukpa Lineage, the Dragon People, or “the Land of the Thunder”, a reference to the country’s dominant Buddhist sect, a really interesting subject area to read up on if you have time before your visit or to explore on the ground if you arrive into the country a few days before your tour.
During the tour we will bird around some of the historical sites of cultural importance such as the famous Tiger Nest Monastery in the Paro Valley and the equally famous Punakha Dzong. The word ‘Dzong’ roughly translates to fortress-monastery, hence these buildings are hugely important to the Bhutanese. The Punakha Dzong was the administrative center and the seat of government in Bhutan until 1955, when the capital was moved a relatively short distance west, to its current location at Thimphu. This particular Dzong is one of the largest in Bhutan and the traditional architecture is fascinating to see up-close – take a look at our spring 2019 trip report to see a photo! It is also a great spot for birdwatching, the Dzong was built between two rivers for defensive purposes and so is worth a look for the huge Crested Kingfisher.
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The interesting range of habitats in the country supports notable diversity too. The landscape of Bhutan extends from lush subtropical grass plains in the south to the subalpine Himalayan mountains in the north – the country really is spectacularly beautiful throughout. There are many peaks higher than 23,000 feet (7,000 meters) and Gangkhar Puensum (24,840 feet / 7,570 meters) is Bhutan’s highest peak. There are 23 Important Bird Areas (IBAs) in the country (BirdLife International), and all protect globally-threatened species (e.g. Chestnut-breasted Partridge, Blyth’s Tragopan, Black-necked Crane, White-bellied Heron, and others), these IBAs cover 26% of the country, some are huge too and reflect the nature of intact habitat still present in the country.
Part of the country falls within the Eastern Himalayas Endemic Bird Area (EBA), which is also classified as a global biodiversity hotpot, and according to the International Ornithological Congress (IOC) Bhutan is home to just over 700 bird species including some highly sought-after species from a global birdwatching perspective. We conduct birding tours to Bhutan in spring and fall/autumn as each of these seasons give slightly different opportunities and avian spectacles.
During our tours we spend time birding across a range of habitats and elevations and one of the most enjoyable days is when we visit the famous and spectacular Chele La Pass (13,083 feet / 3,988 meters). Our time at Jigme Dorji National Park (a huge tract of pristine forest) is also likely to be very popular, as will all the other interesting places we stop to bird. Both of the above sites are IBAs and we also visit several other IBAs during the tours. Some of the bird highlights we see on our Bhutan birdwatching tours include the likes of Ibisbill, Wallcreeper, and Spotted Elachura (all three monotypic families), and Wood Snipe, Satyr Tragopan, Himalayan Monal, Rufous-necked Hornbill, Fire-tailed Myzornis, Beautiful Nuthatch, Ward’s Trogon, Pallas’s Fish Eagle, Rufous-throated Wren-Babbler, White-throated Redstart, Blue-bearded Bee-eater, and Slender-billed Scimitar Babbler, along with other vivid pheasants, beautiful sunbirds, bizarre parrotbills, intriguing laughingthrushes, striking and gorgeous forktails and a plethora of other tantalizing jewels that give great photographic opportunities. By finishing our spring tour in neighboring Assam, India (departing through Samdrup Jongkhar towards Guwahati) we also get the chance to look for both Greater Adjutant and Lesser Adjutant, two globally-threatened avian giants.