Bhutan Highlights Apr 09—25, 2012
Posted by David Bishop
This was VENT's twenty-third tour to Bhutan since 1994 when we first began operating in this magical kingdom. We sometimes offer two tours a year and they usually fill very quickly. So what is it that makes this particular 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; consequently, they charge a princely sum for being among the privileged few to visit their country. In 2012 we offered for the first time a shortened Bhutan tour. In many ways this worked well, and thanks to a very congenial group we had a wonderful experience, although not including the world-famous Limithang Road undoubtedly put a big hole in our itinerary. On the other hand, we birded some completely new areas and found some really wonderful and quiet roadside forests. We also birded some fabulous lowland Sal Forests that produced a whole suite of new and exciting birds. As a result, in 2013 we will return to our well-renowned Blue Ribbon Bhutan tour, but with a few changes to incorporate some of the exciting new areas we discovered this year!
Trongsa Dzong, Central Bhutan— Photo: David Bishop
On our Bhutan tour we typically record well in excess of 400 species of birds and 15-25 species of mammals. On this shorter tour we recorded well over 300 species of birds and 12 species of mammals. It has to be said that our mammal list seems to be getting better and bigger each year, perhaps a reflection of 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! The brand new field guide to the butterflies of the India subcontinent will undoubtedly result in more butterflies being recorded on this and other tours in and around India.
While 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 our Bhutan tours. Some years we have done very nicely with the enigmatic and globally critically endangered White-bellied Heron, while on other years no one has seen it at all. Sometimes we struggle with Satyr Tragopans while in other years they behave like a dream and males show off to us—as they did this year! Beautiful Nuthatch is yet another blue-ribbon bird, but has become very difficult at one site, possibly because of excessive use of tape-play-back. Because we know Bhutan and its birds so well, we also know this country well enough to take our clients to less utilized sites.
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 very confiding Wallcreeper. 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 mountainsides ablaze with as many as 8–10 species of flowering rhododendrons, most of them in giant tree-like growth-forms, merely hints at the floristic joys of the kingdom of the thunder dragon.
Blue-capped Rock-Thrush— Photo: David Bishop
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 birdlist 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, its wildlife, and its people. I doubt any of us will forget the male Satyr Tragopans that put on such a wonderfully prolonged performance so close to our Pele La camp.
We enjoyed fine views of a flock of infrequently encountered White-hooded Babblers and prolonged scope views of a female Pale-headed Bamboo Woodpecker in its preferred giant bamboo habitat; several exceptionally confiding Sultan Tits; and hornbills out the gazoo—we saw all four possible species including most memorable encounters with both Great and Rufous-necked species. Of course, the birding is always great in Bhutan, and any time you find Himalayan Monal as well as we did is very special. But, as seems to be a recurring theme on VENT's Asia tours, it was a very good trip for mammals, with a total of 12 species seen including many golden langurs and some very close-range looks at the goat-like antelope, the goral.
Our Bhutan tour is a wonderful exposition of the rich biodiversity, landscapes, and culture of this fascinating Kingdom. I cannot wait to return!