“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
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.
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.
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
then is Bhutan a place as wondrous and enchanting as you can imagine and with
more real birds as you could ever hope for!
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
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.
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!
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,
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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,
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
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.
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
: 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.
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.
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.
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,
© K. David Bishop.