Bhutan 2008
Trip report

 
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Trip Report symbol © Sumit Sen              Bhutan and North India VENT Tour
             
Leader: K. David Bishop
              16 April - 8May, 200
8

 


The Birds and Other Wildlife
recorded on the 2008 VENT Bhutan Tour

© K. David Bishop
Male Satyr Tragopan, Bhutan

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BHUTAN 2008

“The Paro Dzong (monastery), guarded by icy crags, sits warming under the late afternoon sun. It seems to welcome our approach to our beautifully located hotel. An Ibisbill, so subtle as to be taken for a glacial stone, dips quietly in the snowmelt. This is indeed the Kingdom of Bhutan and the land of the peaceful Dragon.” As Steve Hilty remarked on first setting foot in the kingdom, "This is fairytale land."  ~ K. David Bishop


This was the twenty-first VENT bird tour to Bhutan since 1994 when we first began operating in this magical kingdom. We regularly offer two tours a year and they always fill a long way out. So what is it that has makes this particular VENT tour so attractive? Quite simply Bhutan is in a class of its own. Yes it’s an expensive tour largely because the Bhutanese have decided (in my opinion quite rightly) that they would rather not compromise their culture and spectacular natural environment to hundreds of thousands of tourists and in consequence charge a princely sum for being among the privileged few to visit their country. Similarly we at VENT feel that we have a very special product to offer and whilst we could make it shorter and thus less expensive we feel that that would diminish the experience. By taking more time in Bhutan we can literally take the opportunity to smell the ‘roses’ or rather the Daphnia, imbibe the various serendipitous cultural opportunities that offer themselves as well as really enjoy the birds, mammals, butterflies and flowering plants that are so profuse in spring in the eastern Himalayas. Many of these species and experiences require time and we don’t want to short-change our valued clients. How often have you heard on tour after VENT tour that one wishes one was here 40 or more years ago. In the case of Bhutan, we are there 40 years ago but with all the joys and comforts that a good infrastructure brings.

Bhutan is literally everything we had hoped it would be and more. And it just gets better and better. Our ground agents Gangri Tours and Travel treats us like royalty and are absolutely professional sometimes to the point of this leader’s amazement. Our ground crew from Wangdi our truly world-class bus driver to the newest dining room recruit contribute majorly to the fun, happiness, comfort and enjoyment everyone derives from this special tour.

On the VENT Bhutan tour we typically record 415 to 455 species of birds and 15-25 species of mammals, although it has to be said our mammal list seems to be getting better and bigger each year, perhaps a reflection of Dion and my personal interest in the mammalian critters of Asia and in particular the Himalayas. And perhaps the enthusiasm of our clients and our driver for night-drives and spotlighting! Whilst clearly everyone wants to see such mega-charismatic species as Satyr Tragopan, Ward’s Trogon, Rufous-necked Hornbill, Himalayan Monal, Ibisbill, Beautiful Nuthatch and a host of other specialties there is always a tremendous sense of excitement at experiencing the unknown on VENT Bhutan tours. Some years we have done very nicely with the enigmatic and globally critically endangered White-bellied Heron whilst on other years no one has seen it. Sometimes we struggle with Satyr Tragopans whilst in other years such as this year they behave like a dream and males show off to us (even charge at us!) in all their regal finery. Migration adds enormously to the excitement of Bhutan tours; for example sometimes you can go for several days without seeing a species you would typically expect to find fairly easily and then you bump into a migrating flock of 200 or so. And then there is the real thrill of something completely off the wall such as this year’s Spectacled Finch. Another first for Bhutan, a female casually bouncing along the roadside foraging on seeds within the enchanting fir forests of Cheli La. Flowering plants are a constant distraction and the more you get into them the more you see. A spray of orchids gracing lichen dappled rock and mountain sides ablaze with as many as 8-10 species of flowering rhododendrons most of them in giant tree-like growth-forms merely hint at the floristic joys of the kingdom of the thunder dragon.

This then is Bhutan a place as wondrous and enchanting as you can imagine and with more real birds as you could ever hope for!

I consider myself very privileged to have travelled so often and so extensively throughout the kingdom of Bhutan (1994 to the present). To have the opportunity to regularly explore such an incredible and special destination and in company with my wonderful Bhutanese friends is something I treasure and look forward to every year. VENT’s Bhutan tour is memorable indeed. The vastness and beauty of Bhutan’s forests is to experience a window onto what Asia and the Himalayas once were like which combined with the opportunity to make very real discoveries never fails to rejuvenate my soul and make me want to return there time after time.

This was a very special tour, one of the very best I have ever had the pleasure of leading to Bhutan. In large part this success was due to a wonderful group of participants and our wonderful … no change that, fantastic ground-crew. I would like to thank you all for making the entire tour such a great experience.

The following is a summary of our daily activities, including some of the trip’s highlights together with a list of what we heard and saw. Nevertheless it only conveys part of the story and can never really express the wonderful sights and sounds of Bhutan, its land, its forests, wildlife and its people. I doubt any of us will ever forget the male Satyr Tragopan that stalked all around us in response to my tape and then a short while later came charging at us out of the fog! That gorgeous orange apparition on the roadside cliff one night near our Yongkola Camp – one of if not THE world’s largest flying squirrels, shortly followed by a Solitary Snipe seemingly lost in the mist. Of course the birding is always great in Bhutan and any time you find a Ward’s Trogon as well as we did was very special. But as seems to be a theme on VENT’s Asia tours it was an exceptionally good trip for mammals with a total of twenty-five species seen including many Golden Langurs, some at very close range; Goral and and an amazing night time view of the Himalayan Masked Civet. All in all this tour proved a wonderful exposition of the rich biodiversity, landscapes and culture of this fascinating Kingdom. I cannot wait to return!

Thank you
David Bishop

© K. David Bishop

 

Diary

16 April: An excellent morning’s birding at Sultanphur Jheel with a rich assortment of waterbirds including Red-naped Ibis, Black-neked Storks and beautiful pair of Sarus Cranes. An afternoon exploring some of the cultural antiquities of Delhi put the seal to fine day in the capital. NIGHT: Delhi. Weather: Warm to hot, cloudy, humid.

17 April: As always an excellent morning’s birding on the east bank of the Yamuna River, near Okhla including good looks at the increasingly local White-tailed Stonechat. NIGHT: Delhi. WEATHER: Warm to hot, cloudy, humid.

18 April: We departed very early on the Druk Air flight via Kathmandu to Paro and the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon. The postponement of our flight by one day was serundipitous indeed; our early morning flight was graced with searing blue skies and stupendous views of the Himalayas – the world’s highest mountain range, including the best views I have enjoyed of Mt Everest, before an equally spectacular descent into the Paro Valley. After settling into our hotel and a delicious lunch (the food at Dechen Hotel is arguably the best in Bhutan) we explored the Paro valley enjoying great views of Ibisbill and our first Gold-billed Magpies. The afternoon also included fine views of the charismatic Takstang Monastery and further north the idyllic ruin of Drygyel Dzong. NIGHT: Detchen Hotel, Paro. Weather: Sunny but cool; generally clear with scattered cloud.

19 April: As always we made an early departure for Cheli La and the spectacular birding drive up to the pass at circa 13,000 feet. Winding our way up through Blue Pine Forests and higher up Silver Fir, Spruce and magnificent old Hemlocks we soon began to encounter coveys of 3-5 Kalij Pheasants many of which were confiding, permitting all of us a detailed study. By morning’s end we had garnered as many as 26 Kalij in addition to endelible views of rainbow-hued male Himalayan Monal and a group of Blood Pheasants. But it was one lone, relatively drab-looking finch-like bird that drew the morning’s greatest plaudits. A female Spectaled Finch feeding on the roadside permitted excellent views and the opportunity to document this first for Bhutan! Over the years VENT has added numerous new or near new records to the Bhutan list but as more and more birders comb the country the opportunity for such discoveries declines exponentially. Thus it was a feeling of considerable excitement that pervaded us all. Despite the aroma of breakfast luring as ever onward we screeched to a halt as we rounded a bend in the road to find ourselves gazing in awe at a scene that defies mere words. From horizon to horizon deep satin-blue skies revealed range after range of jagged peaks including the sacred, ice-bound Mt. Jomolhari and her neighbours in all their glory. It was undoubtedly a moving and dare I say it spiritual moment which I personally will long cherish. And so to breakfast; our ground-crew awaited us with the first of what were to be many wonderful breakfasts in the field before we birded our way down into the rarely visited (by foreigners) Ha Valley. A sublime drive through a landscape of vast primeval forests and a patchwork quilt of lush farmland punctuated by Spotted and cheeky White-throated laughingthrushes eventually brought us to the capital Thimpu. NIGHT: Raven Hotel, Thimpu. Weather: Clear with scattered clouds, cool and sunny – ideal birding conditions.

20 April: A moderately early start saw us driving up the attractive Cheri Valley for breakfast below vertiginous Cheri Monastery. Three gamboling Goral on the crags; a drumming Rufous-bellied Woodpecker and a Yellow-rumped Honeyguide were among the morning’s highlights. We returned in time for lunch but not before stopping to gaze upon the imposing Taschidodzong – Bhutan’s equivalent of Parliament or the Senate. The afternoon was spent wandering the streets of the capital and some really fun shopping. NIGHT: Raven Hotel, Thimpu. Weather: Clear with scattered clouds; warm and sunny.

21 April: And so our journey began in earnest with our first venture along the lateral road, at last we were to get to grips with Bhutan’s famous mixed broad-leaved and evergreen forests. As we breasted Dochu La the sense of amazement was notably audible as the incredible beauty of the rhododendrons and magnolias not to mention magnificent, statuesque forests stretched away, seemingly for ever. This was an exceptional year and the intensity and immensity of the floral display that we estimated included 6-8 species of flowering rhododendrons provided a constant distraction from things feathered. We birded down the east slope from the pass to breakfast (ca. 2700m) before continuing further down slope to warm mixed broad-leaved forest and a lovely luncheon site and a very brief flurry of rain. We then descended to the Puna Tsang Chu and on to the lovely Po Chu Valley. A fruitless search for the globally endangered White-bellied Heron was naturally disappointing, however the beauty and tranqulity of the location togther with a male Crested Kingfisher fishing and several rather territorial Ibisbill was more than satisfactory compensation. And of course we drank in our first views of the impressive Punakha Dzong. NIGHT: Zangtho Pelri Hotel. Weather: High overcast with patches of blue sky and occasional sunny interludes; notably warmer and brighter in the open farmland of lower elevations.

22 April: Departed 05.15 for the Mo Chu valley and the lovely Tashitang Track within the Jigme Dorji National Park. Three Grey Nightjars put on a spectacular display at our hotel before we departed but the hoped for Tawny Fish-Owls were absent. Light overnight rain and a high overcast provided ideal birding conditions at the outset. Typically our drive was punctuated with regular stops along the way for birds and other features of interest, however, the great, ginger-coloured Tawny Fish-Owl that flew in and permitted superb ‘scope views was a wonderful surprise (and relief after the loss of our usual stake-out). We eventually made it to one of my favourite breakfast sites. Set amongst gorgeous forests resplendent with spring colours, a waterfall erupting above us provides a perfect amphitheatre for so many classic Himalayan birds. We then birded through some lovely forests for the rest of morning garnering a fine coterie of birds, plants and butterflies including such gems as as persisitently singing male Small Niltava; a female Crimson-breasted Woodpecker; Spotted Wren-Bbabler; Slaty-bellied Tesia; Paris Peacock and a wonderfully showy cluster of orchids. After lunch we returned to the winter capital where we were escorted by Tashi on a fascinating and mind-opening exploration of the inner sanctum of Punakha Dzong. Quite, quite spellbinding. NIGHT: Zangtho Pelri Hotel. Weather: Overnight light rain presented cool, slightly damp overcast conditions becoming sunnier in the late morning.

23 April: After another unsuccessful excursion to search for the White-bellied Heron (we subsequently learnt from Bhutan researchers studying this species that it has not been seen along the Po Chu this year) we returned to our usual schedule. Passing under the ramparts of imposing Wangdi Dzong we gradually made our way through the dry scrub of a narrow gorge before slowly climbing and birding our way through increasingly lovely mixed broad-leaved forests on the west slope of Pele La. Patches of cultivation and prayer-flag bedecked farmhouses completed unending panoplies of wonderful memories including our first Ward’s Trogon. Added to which an astonishing array of birds including flock after flock of Himalayan specialties. As the advertising says “another glorious day in a fairytale land.” NIGHT: Camp Pelela. Weather: Cool, still and pleasant; brief rain squall at lunch; fog patches on Pele La during the late afternoon.

24 April: An enchanting, morning walk in magnificent tall montane forest before breakfast and all to the sounds of the Himalayas in spring. This was one of those absolutely unforgettable mornings with flocks of birds seemingly everywhere and 3-4 male Satyr Tragopans gracing us with amazing point-blank views! The view of a male tragopan feeding togther with a male monal was quite mind-blowing! After breakfast we broke camp and gradually made our way to Trongsa via the King’s chorten at Chendibji. As always seems be the case in Bhutan, birds were everywhere not to mention myriads of photographic opportunities so actually getting to our destination in reasonable time was always going to be a lottery. And just to add spice to our journey Trongsa Dzong, located at the head of three valleys and key to the security of the kingdom, shone in the afternoon sun – it was just 200 metres away and we had only another hour of our journey to go! NIGHT: Trongsa. Weather: Extensive fog patches, cool but pleasant becoming sunny and warm.

25 April: Yet another wonder-filled day replete with magical landscapes, great birds, mammals and plants. From Trongsa we journeyed southwards towards the village of Shemgang. Much of the first part of the day was spent dodging fog and rain, catching birds as and when we could. Then our final drive to our attractive campsite all the while constantly beguiled by a fascinating mosaic of bird-rich forests, terraced fields and erotically daubed Bhutanese farmhouses. With so much to see we were hard pressed to make it into camp by dark. What a truly delightful site. NIGHT: Camping near Shemgang. Weather: Dense fog and rain until late morning thereafter warm and sunny with lots of cloudy patches.

26 April: With an altitudinal range of circa. 500 - 2000m the Shemgang Road nicely compliments its more illustrious cousin, the Limithang Road. Furthermore, the Shemgang Road sees very little traffic, leaving one in peace and serenity to enjoy the beauty of its quite remarkable forests. Our first morning was spent in somewhat degraded Subtropical Forest above Tingtibi followed by a couple of hours in a very attractive giant bamboo forest which much to everyone’s delight produced the hoped for Lesser Rufous-headed Parrotbills. During the afternoon we ascended to higher, cooler elevations and despite a fairly quiet afternoon still caught up with several new species including the elusive Blue-winged Laughingthrush. NIGHT: Camping in the orchard, ca. 1100m, above the village of Tingtibi. Weather: Generally warm and high overcast.

27 April: Departing camp at dawn we birded our way up to 2000m. A mixed morning and sadly no Beautiful Nuthatch but with a plenty of other birds to satisfy everyone including outstanding studies of Rufous-necked Hornbill; displaying Crested Goshawk; 40+ nesting Fork-tailed Swifts; great looks at a Lesser Yellownape;more Blue-winged Laughingthrushes; excellent ‘scope views of the spectacular Red-faced Liocichla and back at camp fabulous views of a very responsive Chestnut-winged Cuckoo. After broiling during the midday siesta in camp we descended once again to the giant bamboo forest. Against a backdrop of thunderous skies and patchy rains we enjoyed marvellous views of a flock of low-flying White-throated Needletails and then to our astonishment a Pale-headed Bamboo Woodpecker flew low across the road. Responding miraculously to my tape we ended up watching three birds (a family group?) flying around us and drumming like fury on very resonant bamboo. The rain and thunder returned and just when we thought we wouldn’t see anything else a flock of four very dapper White-hooded Babblers (also bamboo specialists) popped up right next to the bus. What a day! NIGHT: Camping Orange Orchard. Weather Warm and clear becoming hot during the midday followed by thunderous showers in the afternoon.

28 April: Returning to Trongsa we birded the ‘Mithun Farm Track’ largely in the hopes of finding Beautiful Nuthatch and although that was to no avail we did find a very attractive and birdy locale full of interesting and confiding birds including Lesser Shortwing, and the charming White-browed Piculet. Reluctantly taking our leave of Shemgang we gradually wound our way up and down the hill back to a hot shower and regular bed. NIGHT: Trongsa. Weather: Warm, sunny, scattered cloud.

29 April: Yet another wonderful day in ‘Fairytale land’. We drove up to the pass for breakfast on Yutong La before spending the entire morning walking back downhill enjoying exceptional looks at Slender-billed Scimitar-Babbler and Scaly-breasted and Bar-winged wren-babblers along the way. We then worked our way back up through magnificent Hemlock and Silver Fir forests before descending into the Bumthang valleys.

The second half of the day brought quite a change of pace with a delightful ramble through the Bumthang valleys; a stop at the weaving centre for a rare opportunity to shop and on to the Jakar Valley and some time to catch up on notes and revel in the intricacies of Aum Leki’s extraordinary weavings. NIGHT: Aum Leki’s Guest House, Jakar Valley. Weather: Clear and sunny with large patches of cloud.

30 April: The journey to our camp at Sengor is surely one of the engineering marvels of the world. And this year despite that at times the weather was less than perfect we were still treated to vistas that constantly left us stopping to stare in awe. And, as we surmised, Bhutan’s forests really do extend as far as the eye can see. This was indeed one of the great days of the entire tour not least for the two male Satyr Tragopans that just stood alongside the ‘road’ as we descended to Sengor; the brilliantly coloured Golden Bush-Robin and less than obliging male Fire-tailed Sunbird. NIGHT: Camp Sengor. Weather: Semi blue-sky day, at times warm to hot; high UV but from Thrumsingla cloudy with patches of fog producing very good birding conditions.

1 May: Early in the morning we drove back up Thrumsingla and were immediately rewarded by yet another male Satyr Tragopan that just stood ‘stupidly’ on the roadside permitting everyone to drink in all his beauty. By the time we came across yet another pair of these gorgeous creatures no one believed that we could have missed this species on our previous tour! The weather moved in but a quick stop to look for the Golden Bush-Robin produced a nesting pair and then a very territorial pair of Great Parrotbills in addition to fabulous ‘scope views of Crimson-browed Finches and a very confiding White-browed Shortwing. What a morning and all before breakfast! From Sengor we drove down the famous Limithang Road stopping at the Namling Death Drop for lunch and a siesta and to wait out the fog. The fog won and so we gradually wound our way down to our attractive and comfortably warm Yongkola camp at 6,200 feet. The pass at Thrumsingla (12,400 feet) is the start of the now famous Limithang Road. Birding down the east slope of Thrumsingla we made the spectacular but rather vertiginous descent, as ever amidst seemingly unending and untouched primeval forests and the panoply of flowering rhododendrons on this descent is surely one of the world’s great floral displays. The forests were as beautiful as it is possible to imagine and graced with some marvellous birds. NIGHT: Yongkola Camp. Weather: Rain, fog, patchy cloud, fog, rain, clear.

2 May: We woke to pouring rain and so took an early breakfast before heading up the road to make our first albeit unsuccessful try for Ward’s Trogon. Much of the day was then spent birding our way back to camp with lunch and a siesta during the midday. NIGHT: Bonkosomey Camp, Yonkola. Weather: Largely rainy and overcast.

3 May : Oh just another bird-filled day along, arguably, one of the best birding roads in the whole of Asia. Despite a delayed start because of pouring rain we all revelled in the serene beauty of these ancient forests and the beautiful light effects on ridge after pastel ridge rendering it all quite unreal. Indeed this was a time to draw breath and enjoy the beauty of this oh so wonderfully remote part of the world. Surely the Limithang Road truly is one of the great birding roads of the world. Ascending above the Namling Death Drop and the cloud and rain we soon ran into some good birding including, finally our first Little Forktails – nesting alongside a spectacular waterfall; very confiding Broad-billed Warblers and less than confiding Chestnut-crowned Tesias.

Stretching away, seemingly endlessly, towards the horizon, this road sports some magnificent forests with many tall trees of impressive girths on huge buttresses, jutting out over our path. Orchids abound, and the understory of the forest is often relatively clear, although the higher strata are often strung with enormous woody vines and lianas. And then there are the patches of bamboo so full of secrets and promise. NIGHT: Bonkosomey Camp, Yongkola, Limithang Road. Weather: Torrential rain, cloud, patches of blue sky.

4 May: Finally we woke to a morning of blue sky and sunshine. Once again we ascended above camp and finally found our Ward’s Trogon, a group of two females and a truly glorious male that put on a great show permitting fabulous ‘scope views. Winding our way down from our Yongkola camp we dropped into the lovely Shonkhar Chu Valley before climbing up to the village of Mongar and our hotel where everyone enjoyed the hot showers and a regular room plus the opportunity to explore a Bhutanese village. NIGHT: Mongar Hotel. Weather: Sunny, patchy cloud, warm.

5 May: Departing early we birded our way up Kori La finding a pair of nesting Dark-sided Flycatchers in a roadside bank in addition to a fine pair of Brown-throated Treecreepers before breakfast. We then birded our way down Kori La encountering mixed flock after mixed flock and superb opportunity to review many old friends and gain better views of others. As they day warmed we climbed aboard our comfortable bus and wound our way up and down ‘hill’ to our very attractive campsite at Rontong. NIGHT: Rontong Campsite. Weather: High overcast, partially clear, warm at lower elevations.

6 May: A fascinating day of spectacular landscapes as we commenced our final descent of the Himalayas. Departing camp shortly after dawn at 06.00 we gradually climbed through a largely lightly wooded agricultural landscape, passing the attractive Sherubtsee College before climbing to the highest point of the day at 8,500 feet where after a bit of a struggle some of us enjoyed excellent views of the handsome Indian Blue Robin. Driving with intermittent birding stops and a vist to the Khaling Weaving Community we gradually wound our way down towards Moshi and Narphung but with, for the first time, a rather productive side trip along the Pemygatsel Road. Who will ever forget the precipitous views of the forests disappearing far beneath us at our lunch stop? Yet another delightful lunch and we birded our way back to the main road picking up a pair of Brown Bullfinches, Brown Shrike, Ferruginous Flycatcher and Aberrant Bush-Warbler for good measure. The forests along this little visited road are surely a keeper for future trips. And finally to our attractive campsite at Morong. NIGHT: Morong Campsite. Weather: Partly cloudy with lots of sunny blue skies with some rain later in the day.

7 May: A great day of birding through some lovely forests as we worked our way from Morong down to Deothang and on to Somdrup Jonkhar enlivened by some great birds including a rather frustrating pair of Beautiful Nuthatches, Wreathed Hornbills, a distant Pied Falconet and several Dark-rumped Swifts NIGHT: Somdrup Jonkhar. Weather: Warm but with high overcast.

8 May: Crossing the border back into India we birded our way to Guwahati the capital of Assam with stops along the way for some for some additional birds. The final leg of our epic journey saw us flying with the very fine Jet Airways back to Delhi for a final, farewell dinner. NIGHT: Radissson Airport Hotel, Delhi.

Trip list

© K. David Bishop.

END

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