Bhutan and Assam November 2012
By Duan Biggs and Mike Nelson
Day 1, November 3rd. Arrival in the world’s last Shangri-La
Landing at Bhutan’s International Airport in Paro must be one of the most spectacular landings possible in a jet airplane. Rumor has it that the pilots for Drukair go through additional intensive training, to be skilled enough to navigate the deeply incised valleys that offer the approach to the runway, and that only a few pilots in the world qualify to fly this route. Gliding past some of the world’s most famous peaks at eye level is a stunning sight, before dropping down into the Paro Valley. After a deep breath post-landing we immediately started birding. First up, we all enjoyed the attractive Grey-backed Shrike and our first of many pairs of Hodgson’s Redstart. Our next stop was a site for the Ibisbill, which Mike had staked out in the morning. We relocated the Ibisbill, but it flew off before the group got onto it. Brief views of Common Sandpiper and numerous White Wagtails did not quite make up for it – but a group of Brown Dippers, followed closely by the colorful Plumbeous Water and White-capped Redstarts, was great. Next we tried for Black-tailed Crake, which we had responding – but it did not feel like coming out.
It was time for a scrumptious lunch at our base in Paro – the beautiful Ugyen Phendeyling Resort. After lunch, a visit to the nearby river delivered a group of Rufous-breasted Accentors, but the strong winds were not in our favor. We also enjoyed further views of Plumbeous Water and White-capped Redstarts – both common species that always impress. In the later afternoon it was time for another attempt at Ibisbill. After some time and a great deal of persistence, the entire group was treated to cracking views of a pair of these very unique birds. A very fitting way to end our first day in Bhutan!
Ibisbill Grey-backed Shrike
Day 2, November 4th. Himalayan Monal at Chele La Pass
We left our hotel at 4:30am with one target bird in mind: Himalayan Monal. The monal is known to strut around the frosty top end of the spectacular Chele La Pass at dawn. As the sun’s rays started peeking over the Himalayas, we stopped briefly for a White-collared Blackbird on the road. Soon thereafter we screeched to a halt. Himalayan Monal! Male! Everyone enjoyed great looks of the stunning male. with three females as escort. We continued to the top of the pass, which is just shy of 4 000m above sea level. From the top we enjoyed a great vista towards Chomolhari – Bhutan’s highest peak. After soaking in the views of the Himalayas and appreciating the array of Buddhist prayer flags that dot the top of the pass, it was time for birding. First up: Blue-fronted Redstart, followed shortly thereafter by cracking views of a male Himalayan White-browed Rosefinch. Next up we had good views of a flyover of Northern Raven and two Red-billed Choughs. White-winged Grosbeaks sang from the tops of fir trees on the other side of the pass. Our first party of Tits existed only of the Coal variety, with some White-browed Fulvettas. As we descended back down the pass, we encountered Common Buzzard and Hodgson’s Treecreeper.
We stopped for morning tea in an open meadow in the forest. Our crew started preparing tea, while Red Crossbills flew over. Mike helped the group get onto a large cluster of Plain Mountain Finches. An active flock added attractive Rufous-vented Tits. In a tobacco drying barn, both White-winged Grosbeaks and Red Crossbills were at arm’s length, as they fished around for the tiny seeds littering the floor. Lower down we added Pink-browed Rosefinch, our first of very many Rufous Sibias, and a Rufous-bellied Woodpecker.
We returned to our hotel for an afternoon tea, and afterwards we headed towards the start of the trail up to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. At a bridge we found Spotted Forktail, and a little higher up a noisy flock of splendid Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrushes.
Day 3, November 5th. Tiger’s Nest Monastery to Thimphu
An early morning outing in the forests below the Tiger’s Nest Monastery produced the colorful Mrs. Gould’s Sunbird and Grey-sided Water Bush Warbler. Both Collared and Asian Barred Owlets were heard calling, but we were unable to lure them out into view. A Golden Bush Robin provided similar frustration. Our drive to Thimphu delivered Rosy Pipit, Ruddy Shelduck, and Little Bunting. After arrival in Bhutan’s capital city of Thimphu, the group took time in the early afternoon to shop the quaint streets of the capital city. A short outing in the late afternoon to our stakeout provided everyone with views of Black-tailed Crake. In the evening we enjoyed a fabulous presentation of 13 different dances from all over Bhutan.
Day 4, November 6th. Takins, Honeyguides, and the spectacular Himalayas
We left Thimphu early to visit a breeding program for the takin, a bizarre-looking animal that looks like a cross between a goat and a wildebeest. We all enjoyed views of sambar and Himalayan goral – also present. Our next stop was the stakeout for the Yellow-rumped Honeyguide. Here we also had our first Buff-barred and Grey-cheeked Warblers, as well as Rusty-flanked Treecreeper. It was not long before our local guide came running up from the forests below, having spotted our target – the Yellow-rumped Honeyguide.
After a post-honeyguide morning tea, we drove up to Dochula Pass, stopping en route to photograph the new $100 million buddha that overlooks the Thimphu Valley. The top of Dochula was rather quiet birdwise, but it did provide for spectacular views of all of Bhutan’s highest Himalayan peaks. The road down towards the Wangdi valley delivered our first Stripe-throated Yuhina, Whistler’s Warbler, and Green-tailed and Black-throated Sunbirds. The nearby Botanical Gardens were phenomenal as usual. Here, we had a large flock of Rufous-breasted Accentors, followed by a bird party of gigantic proportions – we did not know where to look! New species included Rufous-vented Yuhina. We got onto a group of nearby Brown Parrotbills, and in close proximity in both time and space we had Red-billed Leiothrix, Rufous-capped Babbler, and Hume’s Bush Warbler. Satisfied, we drove to our stylish resort in the famous Punakha Valley.
Day 5, November 7th. White-bellied Heron
The White-bellied Heron is one of the world’s rarest birds, with a population estimate of around 250 individuals. We started early to nab the heron at its dawn feeding site. A Crested Kingfisher briefly distracted us from our mission. It was not long before eagle-eyed Mike spotted the White-bellied Heron flying across the Po Chu River. In no time we had the scope on him, and all enjoyed good views of one of the world’s rarest birds. Thereafter birding along the Po Chu added Scaly-breasted Munia to our list. One of our participants tried to find out from the locals who had won the US presidential election, but to no avail.
We continued birding to get over the political concerns. En route back south along the Po Chu we found a very worn Richard’s Pipit, as well as some colorful Grey-hooded Warblers and the boldly-plumaged Oriental Magpie-Robin. Then we were inspired to walk over Bhutan’s longest suspension bridge, which we all relished. The views were spectacular, and we also enjoyed more views of River Lapwing and that cosmopolitan species, the Common Sandpiper. The children on the way to school, who passed us on the bridge, were most friendly.
Next up we hit the road up the Mo Chu River towards Jigme Dorji National Park. As we made our way higher up this impressive valley, the forest got better and better. A stop for tea delivered a flurry of birds. A group of colorful Yellow-bellied Fantails flitted about in the canopy above, and Grey Treepies were quite raucous, but high in the canopy. A fabulous pair of Wallcreepers moved up and down the rocky bank next to the road, amidst the lichen-laden trees leading down to the river. One landed close, while the two occasionally chased each other around, showing their brilliant crimson wing patches. The spectacular skulker, Chestnut-headed Tesia, showed itself to some, and we all found ourselves puzzled by a very strange Treecreeper –– like nothing in the field guides. It turned out to be a Sikkim on later inspection. A group of stunning little Chestnut-crowned Warblers flew past, and while we were tracking them an immaculate Black-eared Shrike-babbler appeared. We were not done yet, though, and we all had our brief first views of Mountain Bulbul. The road to Gasa up the Mo Chu delivered more goodies: cracking views of Slaty-backed, Little, and Spotted Forktail, Small Niltava, and mind-boggling views of a perched Crested Serpent Eagle. Mountain Hawk-Eagle soared in the skies above, not far from a flock of Himalayan Swiftlets.
After this birding spectacle we visited the Punakha Dzong (palace) – Bhutan’s most impressive. 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. We were awestruck by the beauty and tranquility of this edifice. We headed to our hotel, 30 minutes south along the Mo Chu, all satisfied after a wonderful day.
White-bellied Heron Crested Serpent Eagle
The Punakha Dzong
Day 6, November 8th. The Black-necked Cranes of the Phobjika Valley
As we were about to depart to the Phobjika Valley, we had Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babbler in the hotel gardens. Not long after departure, a Blue Rock Thrush brought our tour minibus to a halt. This was shortly followed by a White-throated Kingfisher and our first of many Grey Wagtails. We encountered various bird parties on the pass that leads to Phobjika. A group of more than 20 Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrikes flitted about, with a group of Black-throated Bushtits and Black-chinned Yuhinas. The group found a Speckled Piculet, and one of us shouted out, as he spotted the trip’s first flock of attractive Rufous-winged Fulvettas.
Other sightings included Whistler’s Warbler, Himalayan Swiftlet, and a flock of Asian House Martins. Higher up the pass we found our first of the aptly-named Rufous-bellied Woodpeckers. Our first Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler brought delight, as did Grey-winged Blackbird, Ashy Drongo, and lot and lots and lots of Rufous Sibias.
A stop a little higher up the pass was very productive. Mike coaxed out a most obliging Scaly-breasted Wren-babbler, while a Rufous-breasted Bush Robin kindly perched out in the open. After lunch, our first of many Assam macaques put on a display.
Upon arrival at the Phobjika Valley, everyone jumped out of the van to enjoy great looks at one of the world’s rarest cranes – the Black-necked Crane. A birding walk in the later afternoon delivered a lonesome Tickell’s Leaf Warbler amidst a group of Rufous-breasted Accentors, a large flock of Red-billed Choughs, great looks at a male Hen Harrier, and several Oriental Skylarks.
Day 7, November 9th. Laughingthrushes, Scimitar Babblers, and minivets
An early morning walk in the cold in our lodge at Phobjika delivered Eurasian Wren, Black Drongo, and Goldcrest against the beautiful background sound of bugling Black-necked Cranes. An exploration of the top of Pele La delivered Alpine Accentors in the otherwise quiet of the cool, crisp morning air. A stop for tea as we descended eastwards was accompanied by a splurge of raptors above: Northern Goshawk, Himalayan Vulture, Steppe Eagle, and Long-legged Buzzard. Everyone relished a good lunch at a nearby restaurant. As we started nearing the town of Trongsa, an agitated Fire-tailed Sunbird drew our attention to a Collared Owlet. The angry sunbird attracted a large posse of White-throated Laughingthrushes too. Not far down the road we encountered two vibrant bird parties, both centered on flowering cherry trees. The first party was a mind-boggling bird-fest: 20-plus Green-tailed Sunbirds, Streak-breasted Scimitar Babblers feeding on cherry blossoms out in the open, a large mixed flock of Grey-chinned and Long-tailed Minivets, Red-tailed and Bar-throated Minlas, Buff-barred and Ashy-throated Warblers, Striated Laughingthrush, Whiskered Yuhina, Rufous-capped Babbler, Yellow-browed and Green-backed Tits, and White-tailed Nuthatch. Phew! A second, smaller party delivered more views of a similar selection of species. We arrived in Trongsa in time to do some preparatory shopping for our three-day camping excursion to the Zhemgang and Tingtibi areas.
Green-tailed Sunbird Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler
Day 8, November 10th. Trongsa to Zhemgang
A 6:00am departure from our hotel in Trongsa saw us making our way through some gorgeous forests towards Zhemgang. We enjoyed good views of both Little and Spotted Forktail. Bird parties added another Phyllscopus, the Yellow-browed Warbler. The new hydroelectric developments here made birding harder, with the noise of bypassing trucks. But we need to remember that hydropower is the main source of revenue for Bhutan, enabling the conservation of their forests and being the cleanest form of power. New birds included Grey Bush Chat, Himalayan Bulbul, Nepal House Martin, and White-throated Needletail. As one gets further away from Trongsa, the roads become more and more spectacular, and the drop-offs out of the window are awe-inspiring.
As we got away from the hydroelectric disturbances, the birding improved. Our first Common Tailorbird was followed by a Mountain Hawk-Eagle. A sizeable bird party delivered the gaudy Sultan Tit, a pair of confiding White-browed Scimitar Babblers, and a very showy Blue-throated Barbet. Blue-bearded Bee-eater was stunning in the morning light as well. Busy parties of Rufous-winged Fulvettas flitted through the lower stratums, while noisy White-crested Laughingthrushes were heard but not seen. We started encountering troops of the aptly-named Gee’s golden langur and more and more Assam macaques.
As we arrived at our campsite, we headed straight for a shot at the Beautiful Nuthatch at our stakeout. No nuthatch, at least not yet – but we were treated to a stunning display by a pair of Rufous-necked Hornbills. Here we also had Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo and Nepal Fulvetta. Satisfied, we arrived at our campsite, phenomenally located high atop a Himalayan ridge next to a chorten (a dome-shaped Buddhist monument), overlooking the valleys far below. A night walk from our camp delivered Mountain Scops Owl (unfortunately calling only), and great views of a mystical-looking black giant squirrel. Mike heard Brown Wood Owl in the depths of the night.
Blue-throated Barbet Rufous-necked Hornbill
Gee’s golden langur
Day 9, November 11th. Beautiful Nuthatch – Zhemgang to Tingtibi
We started bright and very early, so that we could have a chance at the Beautiful Nuthatch. We left our campsite in the dark after a cup of coffee, and arrived at our stakeout just before the sun hit the forest canopy. It was quiet at first, and we only had the pair of Rufous-necked Hornbills from the day before. But it did not take us long until one of our group thought that she had a nuthatch-like bird feeding on epiphytes. Next another participant heard the call, and soon the whole party was onto phenomenal views of the exquisite Beautiful Nuthatch. Our main target out of the way, we could focus on other species. And there were many: cracking views of Golden-throated Barbet, Fire-tailed Sunbird, a pair of Orange-bellied Leafbirds, and Yellow-browed and Grey-cheeked Warblers. Next a pair of Red-headed Trogons began calling and moving up through the foliage, which many of us got to see. We returned to camp for a scrumptious breakfast, very content.
After breakfast we headed back towards Zhemgang in search of Coral-billed Scimitar Babbler. No babbler, but we did add Blue-winged Minla to our list, in addition to further views of a range of species already seen.
It was time for the exciting birding drive down to our next campsite – at only 600m altitude near Tingtibi. The first stop delivered Large Niltava and Blue-fronted Robin. Lower down we found Siberian Stonechat in an old field, as well as more Gee’s golden langurs. Still lower down, the air started feeling very subtropical, and the birding got better also. A vibrant bird party delivered Nepal Fulvetta, more views of Sultan Tit, Blyth’s Shrike-babbler, Olive-backed Pipit, Ashy Bulbul, and Grey-chinned, Scarlet, and Short-billed Minivets. We finally got to our campsite at Tingtibi in time for afternoon tea, but not before adding White-throated Bulbul to our list.
The late afternoon session proved productive. First up was a mixed flock of Black and Bronzed Drongos, and while we were enjoying this party, our last participant arrived by Landcruiser to join the group – his arrival had been delayed by a week, thanks to Hurricane Sandy, which had ravaged the NE coast of the USA. He was keen to get ticking and bundled in with us. Mike recorded and pulled out a shy Chestnut-headed Tesia. This was followed by a flock of the magnificent Rufous-necked Laughingthrushes, which our local guide tracked down, and he was not done yet – next up he located a Black-crested Bulbul. We enjoyed views of Little Forktail at the river, before heading back to the main road to return to camp. But the return took us some time, as we sifted through birds and finally got views of the noisy White-crested Laughingthrush, and also had further views of Small Niltava and Nepal Fulvetta. We returned to camp, very satisfied after an incredible day’s birding.
Day 10, November 12th. Chasing skulkers at Tingtibi
We started bright and early and headed out to some impressive gallery forest a few kilometers above our campsite. Upon arrival Asian Barred Owlet was calling, but we failed to get a visual. As the day warmed up, a bunch of birds started getting active. Himalayan Flameback was vocalizing, but again nothing visual. A feast for the eyes arrived in the form of a mixed flock of Minivets – Scarlet, Grey-chinned, and Long-tailed. Also in the party were Yellow-vented and Chestnut-crowned Warblers, Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, White-tailed and Chestnut-bellied Nuthatches, and the lovely White-bellied Erpornis (previously Yuhina). Our attention was drawn to a group of vocalizing laughingthrushes in the undergrowth. Mike sprang into action with his record and playback system, and we tracked the birds, which we worked out to be Blue-winged Laughingthrushes. After 45 minutes of frustrating attempts, the best anyone could get was a fleeting glimpse of a silhouette.
It was time for a hearty breakfast. Mike, always searching, tracked down a Little Pied Flycatcher and a White-throated Redstart behind camp. Everyone got onto the delightful little flycatcher, but unfortunately the redstart was gone. A birding walk into Tingtibi town delivered the exquisite Crimson Sunbird and our first group of Striated Yuhinas. From Tingtibi town we headed up yet another spectacular mountain pass, and in a grove of forest and bamboo we picked up on Streaked Spiderhunter, Sikkim Treecreeper, and more Sultan Tits. We enjoyed lunch on the mountain pass, overlooking the Manas River far below. Birding before, during, and after a scrumptious lunch in an idyllic location was very memorable: Yellow-vented Flowerpecker and Asian Brown Flycatcher were added to the list, amidst many repeat sightings. A party after lunch delivered Golden Babbler, which unfortunately only one of the group managed to get onto. A vocalizing Mountain Tailorbird chose not to show itself either.
Being mainly doctors on board, there was a request to visit the local regional hospital. Not only was the hospital tranquilly located and filled with the goodness of Bhutan, but the gardens delivered a pair of electrically-colored Common Green Magpies. A drive down the new road between Tingtibi and Trongsa produced a flying Wallcreeper below a giant rock face. Before dark, we returned to the Blue-winged Laughingthrushes to try and pull them out for a sighting. Once again, they won, and no one managed more than a fleeting glimpse. A bird party in the late afternoon produced another Grey-throated Babbler. A night walk from camp delivered another black giant squirrel.
Day 11, November 13th. Return to Trongsa, more Rufous-necked Hornbills
After an early start we were treated to more views of Golden Babbler. We got onto Striated Prinia, and had more views of Rufous-winged Fulvetta and many others, including White-crested Laughingthrush. A lot of effort produced views of Scaly Laughingthrush. In the later afternoon, as we approached Trongsa, we located our first Bhutan Laughingthrush and more Rufous-necked Hornbills.
Day 12, November 14th. Trongsa to Bumthang
An early morning outing into the forests near Trongsa delivered brief views of Hill Partridge, and a Pygmy Wren-babbler for Mike and one guest. Back in Trongsa, the group visited the famous Trongsa museum tower, while Mike hit the scrub for some photography. He got pictures of Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler and Brown-flanked and Hume’s Bush Warblers. It was time to head to Bumthang for a day and a half, focused on culture. The birding, however, did continue, and we managed to locate a large flock of Red-billed Choughs at a temple, as well as cracking views of a Plain-backed Thrush. A big party of Tits, including Grey Crested, was seen. Also en route we had Yellow-billed Blue Magpie and Plain Mountain Finch. As we approached Bumthang, the quintessential Brown Dippers were seen feeding in the Bumthang River.