Bhutan Apr 01—23, 2013
Posted by David Bishop
This was VENT’s twenty-sixth tour to Bhutan since 1994 when we first began operating in this magical kingdom. We sometimes offer two tours a year and they always fill a long way out. 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. Similarly, we feel that we have a very special product to offer, and while 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, and 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 participants. How often have you heard that one wishes one had been 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, treated us like royalty and were absolutely professional, sometimes to the point of this leader’s amazement. From Wangdi, our truly world-class bus driver, to the newest dining room recruit and our wonderful ground crew, they all contributed to the fun, happiness, comfort, and enjoyment that everyone derived from this special tour.
On our Bhutan tours we typically record well in excess of 400 species of birds (this includes a good list of species from neighboring Assam) and 15–25 species of mammals. During this tour we broke all records with 375 species recorded just within Bhutan! Amazing. 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 Indian subcontinent will undoubtedly result in more butterflies being recorded on this and other tours in and around the Indian subcontinent.
While clearly everyone wants to see such mega-charismatic species as Satyr Tragopan, Ward’s Trogon (well most people!), 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 in other years no one has seen it at all. Sometimes we struggle with Satyr Tragopan 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 are able to take our participants to less utilized sites. This year we turned up trumps with exceptional and prolonged views of a male Ward’s Trogon in addition to all seven possible wren-babblers, Satyr Tragopan, Himalayan Monal, and Rufous-necked Hornbill. It really was quite a trip.
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 thrill of something completely off the wall such as this year’s very responsive Long-billed, Sikkim Wedge-billed, Pygmy, Rufous-throated, Bar-winged, and Spotted wren-babblers—arguably some of Asia’s most desirable and yet at times most difficult to find species! 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 hint at the floristic joys of the kingdom of the thunder dragon.
Golden Langur— Photo: K. David Bishop
I consider myself very privileged to have traveled 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 provide a window onto what Asia and the Himalayas once were like. This, combined with the opportunity to make very real discoveries, never fails to rejuvenate my soul, making me want to return time after time.
The field list 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 conveys only 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 Ward’s Trogon; wonderful Blood Pheasants; Himalayan Monal; a huge male Himalayan Black Bear foraging on a near vertical slope while a Goral watched; fine scope views of a pair of Collared Falconets; and exceptionally confiding Sultan Tits. Of course, the birding is always great in Bhutan and any time you find Rufous-necked Hornbills as well as we did is very special. But, as seems to be a recurring theme on VENT’s Asia tours, it was also a very good trip for mammals, with a total of 19 species seen including many Golden Langurs and some close looks at the goat-like antelope, the Goral.
This was a very special tour, one of the 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.
Our Bhutan tour is a wonderful exposition of the rich biodiversity, landscapes, and culture of this fascinating kingdom. I cannot wait to return!