of the pristine forest in the Eastern Himalayas, that is still intact, lies in
the sparsely populated Kingdom of Bhutan. Here the people are mostly Buddhists
and therefore pacifists.
Killing of birds and other game is almost non-existent
and that means that they tend not to disappear at the first sight of humans, as
is common in most other parts of the Northeast India. I grew up in Assam,
literally on Bhutan's doorstep and often entered its southern bits, legally as
well as illegally. In the nineties, my friends Tim and Carol Inskipps shifted
their attention from Nepal to Bhutan and they would return elated from this
small kingdom, with mouth-watering tales of an "all black" Khalij or a Swiftlet,
perhaps new to science. I would sit lapping up their words determined to follow
their footsteps. In the event, this took almost a decade and was triggered by a
chance meeting with Peter Lobo who had done much bird-related ground-work and
found locations where birds like Hodgson's Frogmouth and Ward's Trogon can be
seen. I then badgered my friend Sumit Sen to come up with a strategy. Despite
numerous run-ins with Sumit, I must admit that he is the picture of serenity and
composure and came up with a meticulous plan, so exhaustive, that I could have
written this report without ever have set foot in that divine country. Each day
was carefully planned, with maps and target birds appended. All we had to do was
to arrive. We also roped in Ramki and his wife Swarna, to bring some youth and
sanity to the group and to prevent Sumit and me from murdering each other.
than the birds, it was the countrywide concept that wealth here, was not
measured by filthy lucre but by 'Gross National Happiness' that had me hooked. I
was further intrigued by their then King, who married three sisters on one day,
and a fourth when she came of age! Rumours persist that a fifth diplomatically
declined to join the merry gang. And so a sunny day in November found the
quartet at the Druk Airway's counter in Kolkata's International Airport.
Bhutan's national airline (the only one who fly into the country) are notorious
for postponing and cancelling their flights at short notice and after several
false starts we were finally on the plane and air-bound, quivering with
anticipation. While flying to Paro it is advisable that you grab the seats on
the left of the plane for on a clear day you can see the high peaks with names
like Ganesh Himal, Cho Oyu, Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, Kanchenjunga and Jhomulhari.
The landing in Paro is considered to be one of the most perilous in the world
and there are only a handful of pilots who are licensed to perform this feat. It
lived up to its hair-raising reputation and when we touched ground, the entire
plane burst into spontaneous clapping.
Paperwork was quickly disposed off and we met up with our guide Tashi and driver
Mangal of Sakten Tours and Treks, who somehow managed to fit our enormous amount of luggage into a large
van and we sped to our hotel on the outskirts of town. Paro is a small town of
about thirty thousand people and is set at an altitude of about 7000 ft. The
drive from the airport to town, gives you the first taste of Bhutan and whets
your appetite for more. The fast flowing Paro Chu river, emanating from the
glacial waters of Mt. Jhomulhari, rushes furiously over rocky boulders on the
right of the road, while the majestic Paro Dzong looms large with the Ta Dzong
(now the National Museum) nestling above it. To the uninitiated, a Dzong is a
distinctive kind of fortress found in Bhutan. It serves many functions,
encompassing the spiritual, social and temporal. It had grown dark by then and
it was through fading light that we first picked up the shadowy silhouette of a
Brown Dipper and a few White Wagtails. We quickly disembarked, grabbed our
binoculars and peered hopelessly through them. A small reddish bird hopped on a
bare willow tree and a huge discussion developed as to its identity. After many
observations, consultations with books, it was pronounced to be a Hodgson's
Redstart. If we had known then, that it would be one of the commoner birds of
the trip, we might not have been so animated.
decorated houses are a feature of Bhutan
checked into the charming Hotel Janka, set in fields beyond Paro and quickly
returned to town to check out its nightlife and find a place to eat. Two lessons
were learnt that night: Booze is extremely cheap and good and that Bhutanese
food is a mix of noodles, rice and vegetables in cheese. It is also repetitive.
It was also on this night that Ramki discovered the joys of the Bhutanese
National Dish Ema Datse, which comprises fiery green (or red) chillies in
a cheese sauce. It was served at every meal much to Ramki's never-ending
delight. We ordered for breakfast to be collected at four the next morning and
returned to grab a few hours sleep.
at three next morning and out by four with all the bags in the car and so began
the first of our serious birding expeditions -- to the Chele La (La means a
mountain pass) the highest motorable road in Bhutan. In our excitement, we had
left an hour too early (another lesson learnt! Sunrise in November is never
before seven) and had to sit it out in the car, midway, waiting for the false
dawn to appear. It was bitterly cold and though we were all clad in warm
clothing, the chill still crept into our bones making us extremely unhappy. We
reached the 3810 metre high pass before the sun rose and got off the car to the
sounds of a bird twittering away. We looked though our binoculars but just could
not pinpoint the bird. Very Frustrating.
prior research I had learnt that every Bhutanese emits the cry 'lea-gey lu'
(victory to the gods) when he crosses this pass and I had every intention of
following suit, but all I could achieve in the cold was a very hoarse grunt. The
sun rose and immediately with the first light bird activity started. We could
soon see Mt Jhomulhari and the adjacent Mt. Jhiku Drake glittering in the new
The vegetation here was mostly dwarf Rhododendron and alpine meadows. Our
mysterious twitterer turned out to be a very handsome Himalayan White-browed
Rosefinch. The distant conifers held a pack of White-winged Grosbeaks, who
eventually came close to the pass and the photographer duo of Ramki and Sumit
pronounced themselves satisfied. Our guide, Tashi, had such an inscrutable face
that it was very difficult to figure out what he was thinking and now at the top
of pass, in a voice so deadpan, declared "the Blood Pheasants are coming" that I
thought he said something innocuous like 'shall we have a cup of tea?' In any
case the effect was electric as we dropped all and rushed to where he was
standing and, lo and behold, a train of Blood Pheasants
began to emerge. One by
one they trooped out of the undergrowth like soldiers marching in a parade.
For someone who had only seen these beauties in wistful dreams, this
multitude of excess was unbelievable.
Cameras clicked incessantly as more and more appeared and I wondered if the
entire worldwide population resided here. Our 'National Collective Happiness'
knew no bounds!
In such circumstances Ramki is quite uncontrollable and
constantly switches camera bodies, lenses, tripods and innumerable other gadgets
in some kind of mechanical frenzy. His wife Swarna, not to be undone,
incessantly fires instructions to him, earning her the sobriquet 'Director of
Photography'. While Ramki mopped up these stunners, Sumit
and I moved down the
road, when some slight movement in the undergrowth, below the road, revealed
three female Himalayan Monals
on the move. Frantic but silent arm-waving brought
Ramki hotfooting and once again the frantic clicking was underway. We moved on
down the path and as we turned the corner we espied a beautiful male Monal
labouring his way up the barren slopes. I knew that Sumit ached to see one of
these splendid birds and the look of pleasure on his face revealed that he had
found finally found nirvana. But by the time Ramki and Swarna arrived, the bird
had gone. Still in a daze we decided to breakfast and take a deep breath. The
events of the morning had us completely astounded, and all this even before nine
in the morning! In our excitement we had completely forgotten that we had dipped
on the Satyr Tragopan, another elusive bird that was supposedly
regular here. The bird that were omnipresent here, and
indeed everywhere on our travels, was the Spotted Nutcracker.
While Tashi and Mangal unraveled the breakfast basket, our
friend Sujan Chatterjee arrived with a bus load of birders that he had been
escorting. We had met him the previous night and exchanged notes. His remark
that on this particular trip he had no trouble in seeing all the difficult birds
but the 'easy' ones had eluded him, turned out to be prophetic in our case as
well, as a glance at our trip-list will reveal. We descended leisurely but by
now the birding had slowed down and all we saw was a Common Buzzard, a Black
Eagle, Rufous-vented, Coal and Grey-Crested Tits. A solitary Hoary-throated Barwing made an appearance, as did a pair of skulking Black-faced Laughingthrush.
Swarna was the only one to see a Maroon-backed Accentor. The only true
excitement was when Ramki and Swarna saw and photographed a beautiful male
Since I was nowhere in the vicinity, this made me very
returned to Paro, and drove down the Paro Chu (river), where our attempts to
find the Long-billed Plover came to naught, but low and behold the river was
full of Ibisbill
This enigmatic winter visitor is so difficult to see in India,
but here every few yards or so, was a pair pretending to be a small boulder. All
of this along a major road, with large noisy SUVs hurtling down at considerable
speed. Never in my life did I think that I would tire of seeing Ibisbills, but
that is exactly what happened. To take your eyes off an Ibisbill to observe a
Grey-backed Shrike was sacrilege but so it turned out. Sumit called to say that
he had found a Red-billed Chough atop a traditional Bhutanese house and we
trooped off to duly record it. Paro was also the only place where we saw three
types of sparrows the House, Russet and the Eurasian!
quick lunch and we were off on our way to our next stop Thimpu, the bustling
capital and the home of the royal family. The journey was only a couple of hours
and just before we reached, we stopped at the tanks of the sewage works and the
few ducks there turned out to be Ruddy Shelducks, a few Gadwalls and an
unexpected Ferruginous Pochard.
checked into the Hotel Phuntshopelri, a swish hotel in the heart of town and
decided to eat in and catch up on some much needed sleep. In any case, and as
usual, we had an early start. We had hoped to meet our friend Sudhir Vyas, the
Indian Ambassador, a friend and a great birder , who had very kindly given us
suggestions for our trip. Unfortunately he was away.
awoke before the hotel staff did, which meant that we carried our own baggage
down and were soon on the way to the Cheri Valley. We left town and passed some
defence installations and were surprised by the number of Spotted Nutcrackers
flying overhead. A Blue-fronted Redstart sat on a post and the ubiquitous
Hodgson's Redstarts were everywhere. We drove past the village of Begana and the
road soon ended at a place called Dodina, where the track to the Cheri Goemba
starts. The monks at this monastery look after the Gorals (a kind of mountain
goat) and feed the pheasants who are exceeding tame. But like all good things in
life, they come for a price. In this case you have to climb almost vertically
for over an hour before you get to see the game. Our guide Tashi did not think
this effort was worth to see a few birds, but it did not deter a slightly-built
Bhutanese gentleman, from carrying a humongous cupboard on his back to be
delivered to the holy men at the monastery. We crossed the Wang Chu by a lovely
covered bridge and came to an open glade where breakfast was served, while
Nutcrackers and Choughs soared overhead.
over Wang Chu
decided to walk up a path that went gently uphill along the river when suddenly
bird activity stated in earnest - Ramki started photographing a Hoary-throated
Barwing, Swarna found a Rusty-flanked Treecreeper climbing a mud wall and Sumit
discovered a flock, yes a flock of Green-Shrike Babblers. Hell broke loose with
people running from one vantage point to the other. Not to be outdone a group of
Golden-breasted Fulvettas made a fleeting and sudden appearance and a Little
Forktail popped up on the river for good measure. A pair of Chestnut-crowned
Laughingthrushes played hide and seek in the low shrubbery.
Exhausted by so much activity we trooped back to the car and drove towards the
Tango Goemba. Rufous-fronted Tits were everywhere, but were so nifty in their
movement that even our intrepid duo of Ramki and Sumit failed to photograph them
and their frustration was palpable and visible. I wished they would capture the
of their desire, and return to be normalcy again. Attempt after attempt
was made, all unsuccessful. On one such occasion, Ramki scampered up a hillside, like a veritable goat and disappeared into the bushes. When he returned he very
casually mentioned that while he had missed the said tits, he had photographed a
from point-blank range. None of us believed him till we saw
the extremely rare and exceeding beautiful bird on his camera screen. I seethed
with jealousy and decided to buy myself a camera!
the base of the Tango Goemba, is a circular path, which is more or less flat and
we decided to walk along it disturbing a party of Olive-backed Pipits, Other
than a troop of Langur monkeys, the only other creatures of interest were Ashy
Drongo, Yellow-bellied Fantail, a Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush, the diminutive
Yellow-browed Tit and Rufous-fronted Tits, which Sumit managed to finally
photograph. We returned to Thimpu, and had lunch in the pleasant 'Seasons'
Restaurant, where Ramki insisted on Ema Datse with his pizza. We
collected our inner-line permits, changed our money and were on our way to
Punakha, the only place where Sumit had, very kindly, allowed us two nights.
drove south to Simtokha before turning left on the East-West Highway. You know
you have arrived at Dochu La pass by the presence of several hundred prayer
flags and the 108 newly-built Chortens. The forests at this point are mostly
Rhododendron with a few magnolias and it must make for a wondrous sight in
spring when the trees are in full bloom. We peered unsuccessfully though the
looming clouds for a glimpse of Bhutan's two highest mountains Gankhar Puensum
(7541 m) and Kulha Gagri (7554 m) but had to be satisfied by the forests below
that seemed to stretch forever. These forests change from Oak, Maple Pine to
Hemlock, Alder, Fir and Cypress. The lower stretches have a fair amount of
Bamboo as well. It is supposed to be a birding paradise, but our luck was out
that gloomy day and we managed only a Great Barbet, a few Long-tailed Minivets,
a gaggle of White-throated Laughingthrushes and a few far-flying Yellow-billed
Hotel Zangdopelri seemed welcoming enough with our rooms and verandahs
overlooking the city and the river. A Large Hawk Cuckoo called familiarly from
the Blue Pines below. We dined late in the warm dining room as Sumit has
authorized a later-than-usual start at seven. All night the Mountain Scops Owl
called. Next morning when we gathered at the parking lot, the hotel's gardens
were full of the commoner birds, which had eluded us so far, and we notched up
Grey Treepie, Long-tailed Minivets, Oriental Magpie Robin, Chestnut-bellied
Nuthatch, besides mynas and doves.
had told us about the Wallcreepers
(image below) that frequented the retaining walls around
the corner from the hotel. As soon as we arrived a splendid specimen put up an
uninterrupted show for us.
Ramki and Sumit came close to being run over several
times by the constant traffic on the road as they photographed this little gem
from all angles. The bird was still there when they finally gave up, beaming
from ear to ear. We descended to town and crossed the Po Chu in search of one of
our major target birds, the White-bellied Heron. Tashi's 'Bazaar Gossip" claimed
that this range-restricted rarity had been seen a few kilometres downstream. We
scoured the area, inch by inch, but this elusive bird was nowhere to be seen on
either bank. We did see a feeding flock of Tibetan Siskins, a bird none of us
seen hitherto, but it did not make up for our disappointment, neither did the
several Ibisbills we saw. A few female kestrels, a couple of Blue-rock Thrushes
and a family of Common Mergansers were the other birds of interest on this
stretch. A Barking Deer, which had obviously come down to the river to drink
kept us amused for some time.
had seen this heron a few days before on the other river Mo Chu, below the
Punakha Dzong and this was where we headed. We repeated the exercise and ever
bit was scanned carefully. A single Pallas's Gull was seen as were the Crested,
Common and the White-throated Kingfishers, but not our quarry. Finally we
reconciled to the fact that we would have to wait for another trip to see this
long-necked bird and called off our search.
stopped at a shady grove next to river and saw River Lapwings and low-flying
Mergansers as we ate the first meal of the day. A Siberian Stonechat and a
single Grey Bushchat were the only grassland birds on this sector.
We drove up
the Mo Chu Valley (seeing both the Slaty-backed as well as Spotted Forktails)
toward our next destination - the Jigme Dorji National Park's Trashithang
forest. This bit of Bhutan's largest national park is mostly warm broad-leafed
and very similar to the forests of North Bengal, with which we were familiar. A
single Alpine Swift cruised above and a few Nepal House Martins were also
circling. We managed to grab a quick look of the only Khalij Pheasant of the
trip but unfortunately it did not turn out to be the all black moffiti.
The first flycatchers appeared - Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher and Small Niltava.
Rufous-capped Babblers, Blue-winged Minla, White-browed Fulvetta and Whiskered
Yuhina were some of the birds seen while walking through the forest. But easily
the highlight were a pair of Red-headed Trogons
who sat a hundred feet apart but posed for us from ten feet away.
a lot for the Buddhist way of life!
returned back to the Punakha Dzong area and gave it another 'once over' in the
forlorn hope for the heron. Saw several Red-vented Bulbuls, Grey Wagtails and
Scaly Munias instead! Back to the Hotel to imbibe a selection of the finest
malts courtesy the duty free shop in Kolkata airport. Next morning we left early
as we had to cover a long distance. The plan was to go to the Pele La area
before backtracking a bit and reaching Phobjikha
Valley in time to see the cranes.
drove past Wangdue Phodrang towards Pele La, the pass that takes you over the
Black Mountains and is the boundary between western and central Bhutan. This was
as far east as we would go on this trip, but before that we had a date with
another mysterious bird - the Yellow-rumped Honeyguide
(image below). When I was younger, I
often postponed opportunities to trek hard in the upper reaches of Uttarakhand
in Northern India to gee this sparrow-like bird.
And I suddenly found myself
older and unfit to undertake such arduous journeys forcing me to reconcile that
I would have to dip on this bird in this lifetime. But Bhutan suddenly presented
a possibility, and ergo I was a little tense on this leg of the journey. Tashi
kept assuring me that the bird would be present, though he did add the proviso
that the Giant Rock bees Apis dorsata themselves had abandoned the hives.
When we drew up to the point on the bend of the road where the hives were, I
could see that they were indeed abandoned and looked so unpromising that Sumit
actually walked off down the road and I had to call him back to show him the
bird, which sat perched on a small twig under the overhang. It looked so
unremarkable from the distance that I wondered what the fuss was about. This was
the kind of situation that Ramki truly loves, and now he sweet-talked Tashi to
accompany him on a rock-climbing mission on a small track he found. Armed with
his lenses, that are almost as big as him, he scrambled up the hillside till he
was at eye level with the bird, who was completely unimpressed by such heroism.
Occasionally it would hop on to the abandoned hives and take a mouthful of wax.
frost covering the Pele La area
Regretfully we had to move on as we still had many miles to traverse and we
travelled through changing landscapes and vegetation till we started a rather
stiff climb to the pass. We came across black ice on the narrow road, which
forced us to drive slowly. We stopped at a promising looking bend and played
calls of different Parrotbills but I was the only one to have a fleeting glimpse
of a Giant Parrotbill. Despite Pele La's reputation, there were very few bird
around, other than the ubiquitous Rufous Sibias.
soaring Himalayan Griffons aside, a buzzard flew alongside and Sumit quickly
pointed out that it was somewhat different from the earlier Himalayan Buzzards
Buteo burmanicus that we had been seeing. The only catch was that there
were no authentic records of Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus)
from these parts. Subsequently the photographs were circulated and Sumit was
proved correct, and an important record established.
moved on, when a blood-stained man at the edge of the road hailed our car down
and told us that his car had skidded and gone down the edge of the cliff and
that everyone was gravely injured. Both Mangal and Tashi scampered down the
steep escarpment and heroically rescued the injured. We managed to stop traffic
on the road and everyone joined the rescue. An hour later the operation was
completed and the injured sent off to the nearest hospital, where hopefully all
survived. It was a very subdued party that turned back towards Gangtey in the Phobjikha
bamboo covering Gangtey
Valley below Gangtey is almost surreal with the entire area being covered in
dwarf bamboo, beloved of the local Yaks. We did not see any parrotbills that are
supposed to live in these bamboos, instead saw a distant White-winged Bushchat
dart into the bushes. Not very satisfactory, but the land of the Black-necked
Cranes lay ahead and we pushed on till we reached the village. We saw several of
these rare cranes in the wetlands that form the base of the valley. Potato
fields dotted the valley and form an important part of the local economy. We
decided not to visit the Black-necked Crane Information Centre, preferring to
hop across the small wet patches and take our photographs from there. In the
event we counted about 70 of these long-legged birds, besides seeing a Hen
above) hunt rodents below and a resting Grey Nightjar. The Dewachen Hotel
turned out to be the best of the trip with real wood fires warming our cold and
tired bones. We slept early as usual after an excellent meal in the warm dining
decided to return to Pele La the next morning, which started promisingly with a
pair of Darjeeling Woodpeckers, the only representative of the family in the
entire trip. But that is where our luck ran out. Other than a pair of Snow
Pigeons, a Eurasian Treecreeper , the usual tits, and a single White-browed
Rosefinch, there was precious little to see. Reluctantly we turned back and
started the long journey back to Thimpu, where we would spend the night. We
returned to the Honeyguide spot where out star awaited us, this time a little
lower on a mossy bank. Cameras clicked as if photographing a Bollywood nymphet,
only that in this case it was a male. While the photo session was in progress,
Swarna and I spent some time chasing a Pygmy Wren Babbler and a few
Gangri range from Dochu La
little down the road, we ran into a spectacular mixed hunting flock with
included Red-billed Leiothrix, Red-tailed Minla and Nepal, White-browed,
Golden-breasted and Rufous-winged Fulvettas. A Cutia showed up in the distance.
A Mountain Hawk Eagle caused momentary excitement, but a Collared Owlet, within
touching distance was the star of the day. Back safely in Thimpu we decided to
celebrate our last night in Bhutan by going to the Zone Bar, where an excellent
dinner was had. Ramki announced in a clear placid voice that he had decided to
leave at 3 am to Chele La to give the Blood Pheasants another go, before meeting
us at the airport at ten in the morning. His long suffering but faithful wife
agreed to accompany him, while Sumit and I left at a more human hour of seven.
This would give us an hour or so to look for the Solitary Snipe in the marshy
bogs of the Paro Chu. The snipe we couldn't find but we did see the rarest of
crakes - the Black-tailed
a way to end the trip.
met at the airport at the appointed time, to discover that our flight had been
cancelled! But what followed is another story and must wait another day.
© Bikram Grewal 2008
Bhutan Trip Reports