A Cutia in Bhutan, an iconic bird of the Himalayan forests. Photo: Steve Matherley
Druk Yul or ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’ is the remote Himalayan kingdom we know as Bhutan. Nestled deep in the heart of the Himalayan mountains, wedged between two giant and populous neighbours and yet secluded from them by some of the highest mountain ranges on earth, it is probably not surprising that Bhutan has retained much of its historic culture, its centuries-old rituals and its fascinating heritage. Nor is it surprising that Buddhist Bhutan has remained poorly known to the West. While most of this awesome country is now open to foreigners, tourist quotas are still restricted and few travellers and even fewer birdwatchers have had first-hand experience of this fabulously unique and diverse country.
On this trip to Bhutan we’re sure to see birds in abundance, plus some spectacular, breath-taking scenery and much more as we travel almost right across the country. Over 70% of the land surface is forested and over 600 species have so far been recorded, including over 30 new species we’ve added including Rusty-bellied Shortwing and Hodgson’s Bushchat. A significant number of species, such as Satyr Tragopan, Blood Pheasant and Himalayan Monal, Beautiful Nuthatch, Sikkim Wedge-billed, Long-billed, and Bar-winged Wren-Babblers, Yellow-throated Fulvetta, and Fire-tailed Myzornis are easier to see here than anywhere else on earth. For several others, such as Ward’s Trogon, Yellow-vented Warbler, Blue-fronted Robin, and White-naped Yuhina, Bhutan is one of very few accessible places to see them.
Bhutan is fabulous and, perhaps more than most other countries, fires the enthusiasm of all who have visited it and leaves almost everyone with a sense of privilege and a desire to return.
Day 1: The tour starts in London with a flight to Delhi, arriving late in the evening. Night in Delhi.
Day 2: We’ll catch a very early morning flight to Paro, Bhutan’s only airport. Our route parallels the mighty Himalayan mountain chain and if the weather is good we should see Mount Everest. After clearing immigration we’ll drive east through an enchanting valley with its gaily-decorated shingle-roofed houses and willow-fringed river. Red-billed Choughs are quite common in this valley and as we head east we’ll stop to search for Black-tailed Crake, Ibisbill, Wallcreeper, and Brown Dipper. With luck we might encounter a regional speciality such as Rufous-fronted Tit. We’ll spend the night in Thimpu, Bhutan’s delightful capital.
Day 3: We’ll head east out of Thimpu, up onto the western slopes of the Dochu La, the first of a series of high altitude road passes that we’ll explore. Entering the pristine mixed forests of hemlock, fir, oak, blossoming magnolias, and rhododendrons we should see a wealth of birds including some species-rich feeding flocks. Quarrelsome Nutcrackers are common and past highlights have included a skulking Hill Partridge, a Satyr Tragopan, a Golden Bush Robin, an immaculate Cutia, a Brown Parrotbill and even the gorgeous Fire-tailed Myzornis. Most of our birding on this tour will be from the roads, which are well paved and almost lacking in traffic. Today however, we’ll venture off road on to a trail that enables us to explore the forest more thoroughly. On several recent tours we’ve even managed to have excellent views of Ward’s Trogon, one of Bhutan’s premier avian prizes. Night near Punakha.
Day 4: From our base at a splendid traditionally decorated hotel near Punakha, the former capital of Bhutan, we’ll explore the braided channels of the Mo Chhu river and the bird-rich sub-tropical forests it contains. Our route will take us past the spectacular Punakha Dzong (a fortress and monastery combined). We should see an impressive array of species here, and on several occasions in the past these have included a White-bellied Heron, one of Bhutan’s rarest birds. We’re sure to encounter several parties of brightly coloured minivets, noisy Striated Laughingthrushes and may also see more Ibisbills. A whole host of forest species such as Bay Woodpecker, Red-headed Trogon, and Wedge-tailed Pigeon, wait to be discovered. Fire-capped Tit breeds here, as does White-gorgeted Flycatcher and the rare Yellow-vented Warbler. We’ll also search for a variety of skulkers including Lesser Shortwing, Spotted Elachura and Pygmy Wren-babblers and two of Bhutan’s three species of tesia. In the afternoon we hope to go inside Punakha Dzong - a fabulous monastery-fortress which is still home to hundreds of monks. Night near Punakha.
Day 5: Continuing east, past the smaller Wangdi Dzong, we’ll make a series of brief stops to scan the braided river channel. In the past we’ve seen Pallas’s Gull and Pallas’s Fishing Eagle here and added a number of other species to the Bhutanese list. We’ll also check forest edges and explore some of the small patches of cultivation. We’ll enter productive forest near the end of our journey and will stop here to look for species such as Spotted Laughingthrush, Yellowish-bellied Bush-Warbler, Rusty-flanked Treecreeper, White-browed Bush Robin and White-winged Grosbeak. Our next guesthouse is in Gangtey in the heart of the Phobjika Valley.
Day 6: Leaving Gangtey we’ll follow the twisting road up over the Pele La pass and into ‘Central Bhutan’. We’ll spend much of the morning on the Pele La Pass searching for species such as Blood Pheasant, Satyr Tragopan and the majestic Himalayan Monal. A stand of ringal bamboo extends for about three miles below the pass and we’ll search here for specialities such as Great and Brown Parrotbills, and Golden-breasted Fulvetta, surely one of the world’s most attractive passerines. Night in Trongsa.
Days 7: From Trongsa we’ll continue east, heading up and over the bamboo thronged Yotong La into the first of the four Bumthang Valleys. The scenery suddenly changes to broad grassy valleys and rolling hillsides covered in spruce and fir and the avifauna changes equally abruptly. Nutcrackers can be common, though we’ll have to spend a little more time searching for the region’s real specialities – Slender-billed Scimitar Babbler, Fulvous, Brown and Great Parrotbills, White-browed and Rufous-breasted Bush Robins and Dark-rumped Rosefinch. Night in Jakar, Bumthang.
Day 8: We’ll start early today, continuing our circuit east and searching for pheasants which could include Monal, Satyr Tragopan and Blood Pheasant. We’ll climb, and eventually cross, the Thrumsing La, which at 12,465ft is Bhutan’s highest road pass. The road then plunges dramatically down into rich semi-tropical rainforest and we find ourselves on the Lingmethang road, perhaps Asia’s premier birding road.
Many of Bhutan’s most sought-after birds can be found here including Chestnut-breasted Partridge, Ward’s Trogon, the majestic Rufous-necked Hornbill, Blue-naped Pitta, Blue-fronted Robin, and Sikkim Wedge-billed, Long-billed and Bar-winged Wren-Babblers. Accommodation nearby is spartan, so we’ve opted to camp, spending four more nights under canvas. Our first night will be near Sengor camping in modern, walk-in, spacious tents and sleeping on comfortable camp beds all erected for us by our Bhutanese crew.
Days 9-11: We’ll spend these days exploring the fabulous, lush primary forests near Lingmethang in search of the area’s specialities. We’re sure to see many new birds, and while not all of these are rare, many of them, such as Slender-billed and Coral-billed Scimitar-Babblers, Scaly and Blue-winged Laughingthrushes, Greater Rufous-headed Parrotbill, Broad-billed Warbler, White-naped Yuhina, and Rufous-throated Wren-Babbler are poorly known and unfamiliar to most birders. Nights under canvas.
Day 12: Leaving our Yongkola campsite we’ll head back up and over the mighty Thrumsing La returning to Jakar in Bumthang for the night.
Day 13: This will be our longest driving day of the tour and we’ll travel from Jakar back over the Yotong La to Trongsa before turning south and heading down the Zhemgang road to our third camp site near Tingtibi. Our main species at the start of our journey is the rare and little-known Yellow-rumped Honeyguide, but we should also see a number of other birds, perhaps including Little Forktail, Large Niltava, and Russet Bush Warbler. The entire length of this spectacularly forested valley is also a good area for the endangered Golden Langur monkey. We’ve seen Beautiful Nuthatch at several sites on the lower Zhemgang road and will spend time searching for this magnificent creature. Our camp site, right in the heart of some superb forest, is at one of the lowest altitudes that we visit in Bhutan and species encountered here on recent tours include Chestnut-breasted Partridge, Violet Cuckoo, Pin-tailed Green Pigeon, Rufous-necked Hornbill and Cutia. Rufous-faced Warbler is also quite common here. We also stand a further chance of encountering the rare White-bellied Heron and possibly Collared Treepie.
Day 14: Another full day exploring the rich forests around Tingtibi. Night camping.
Day 15: We’ll wind our way south en route to our next base in south-central Bhutan. Our journey takes us through a series of villages before continuing over several forest-covered passes and down equally spectacular river valleys. This area of Central Bhutan had only recently been opened to foreigners and remains poorly known ornithologically. We’ll make several exploratory birding stops amid superb forests before we reach our next camp.
Day 16: Our campsite is in the heart of prime mid-altitude forest and provides us with opportunities to study the birds of this rich biotope. We’ll spend the day birding in the forests between there and Gelephu, having breakfast and lunch in the field. We expect to arrive at Gelephu, our base for the following night, in the early evening. Today’s key species will include Mountain Imperial Pigeon, Dark-rumped Swift, Long-tailed Broadbill, Rufous-necked Laughingthrush and we stand another chance of encountering the enigmatic Beautiful Nuthatch. Night in a hotel.
Day 17: We’ll spend the morning exploring the forested hill slopes around Gelephu, a bustling border town lying at the junction of the Himalayas and the Brahmaputra flood plain. Here we may find species such as Grey Peacock Pheasant, Wreathed Hornbill, Whistling Hawk-Cuckoo, Pin-tailed Green-Pigeon, Violet Cuckoo, and Sultan Tit. In the afternoon we’ll reluctantly leave Bhutan and drive south into Assam, India, and onwards to Guwahati. We make several brief stops on the way to this, the logistical hub of northeastern India. We’re sure to see several Lesser Adjutants and possibly Greater Adjutant en route. Night in Guwahati.
Day 18: After a morning birding around Guwahati where highlights could include Small Pratincole, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Citrine Wagtail, Rusty-rumped Warbler and Striated Grassbird we’ll transfer to the airport arriving in plenty of time to catch our flight back to Delhi. Once in Delhi we’ll transfer to an airport hotel for an opportunity to freshen up and have a leisurely dinner before transferring to the airport for our flight home to London, where the tour concludes on Day 19.
Updated: 31 August 2016