Bhutan Apr 12—May 04, 2015
When I first visited Bhutan in 1996 with David Bishop, I said that a visit to Bhutan was like entering a fairy tale world. Everything seemed so different and, in some sense, much of the country did seem frozen in time, with traditions and a culture that had seen relatively little change in centuries. Even its name, Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon, seemed to reflect this fairy tale setting. The country was governed by a real king, a benevolent and enlightened one to be sure, but away from the cities of Paro and Thimphu in the western region, life seemed to have been little affected by the modern world. Buddhism dominated life, monks in dark red robes could be seen almost everywhere, and impressive monasteries called dzongs were scattered throughout the countryside, as were prayer wheels and long strings of prayer flags flying in the breeze. Long isolated, the tiny kingdom known today as Bhutan has even undergone numerous name permutations, once known as Boutan (after a 1774 British report) and since then by various other spellings and pronunciations. Prior to this date Bhutan consisted largely of a number of warring fiefdoms, and only in the last 50 years or so has it opened its borders (albeit in a limited manner) to foreigners.
On this visit, after an absence of 19 years, I can see change, although it is not overwhelming. Today there are more hotels for visitors, many now equipped with Wi-Fi. And cell phone service is widely available. There may be a few more vehicles, although the increase is small, and there is new road construction (mainly improving existing roads), but there is still only one road that connects the more modern west with the remote east, and much of it is a single lane road! There are still no stoplights in the capital city (perhaps the only capital city in the world that can claim that distinction), and while the mighty Himalayan mountains dominate the country, the Kingdom of Bhutan does not permit its highest peaks to be climbed, believing them sacred, although various trekking routes allow limited access. Best of all, from a conservation standpoint, and for birders and naturalists, approximately 72% of the country is covered by forest, much of it either primary forest, or only selectively cut. Bhutan is, then, a remarkable country on many levels, spiritually, culturally, and environmentally, and the opportunity for our small group to travel through much of this country is indeed a privilege. It is also an expensive one because the kingdom extracts a daily fee from all visitors for the opportunity to visit this remote mountain kingdom.
First and foremost, Bhutan is a country of mountains. There is almost no flat land anywhere, and visitors quickly appreciate this when they land at the international airport in Paro on a single short airstrip that runs slightly uphill south to north and with towering mountains all around. Entering and leaving the country by air is thus not for the faint-of-heart. During the course of our visit we would soon learn that there also are no straight roads in Bhutan, and travel anywhere takes much more time than it would take the Large-billed Crow to fly the route.
Our Bhutan birding experience began less than ten minutes after leaving the international airport when we stopped along the Paro Chu (“Chu” means river) and almost immediately recorded our first Himalayan endemic, the Ibisbill. Our first full-day trip was a visit to a high mountain pass called Chele La (the “La” means a mountain pass), where we thrilled to repeated sightings of Kalij Pheasants and lovely Blood-colored Pheasants. A day later we visited the stunningly beautiful Cheri Valley north of the capital city of Thimphu. Thereafter we proceeded eastward day by day, alternately camping and staying in hotels, with our easternmost destination being the tiny hamlet of Yongkola. From there we backtracked a long day’s journey to the city of Trongsa and its magnificent dzong, and the following day began working our way southward beginning with a three-day camp and two final days at a small hotel in the town of Gelephu on the India border.
With such an extensive route it isn’t difficult to imagine that we visited many different habitats ranging from rather plantation-like Sal (Shorea robusta) forest in the extreme south near the Indian border to dry Chir Pine and scrub in lower rain-shadow valleys (e.g. around Paro), to humid mixed broadleaf forest at mid-elevations (Limithang Road near Yongkola), and to various evergreen forests right up almost to tree line. And finally we ended the trip with a 6-hour, bird-filled sprint across northern Assam to the bustling Indian city of Gawuadhi where we flew back to our starting point in New Delhi.
Wildlife highlights convey only a part of the experience of visiting Bhutan. Of course the Himalayas are filled with little birds with curious, mostly Nepalese names like cutia, fulvetta, minla, sibia, tesia, and yuhina, but there is much more. There is a nice selection of raptors (I especially liked the Black Eagle), lots of kinds of cuckoos, and some hornbills so fantastic they could hardly have been conjured in fairy tales. The Himalayan mountains also are particularly rich in corvids (treepies, magpies, crows, choughs, and even a lovely Eurasian Jay), and there is a remarkable proliferation of wee little parids and allies, almost all of which carry the moniker “tit,” but North American birders weaned on “chickadees” would find both groups much the same. However, two families seem to embody the Himalayan experience more than any others and these are the babblers, now placed in two related families, and the laughingthrushes, which include a slew of rather large, hulking passerines with crazy-quilt patterns and a more eclectic group of species that include the sibias, barwings, minlas, and a Leiothrix and Liocicla, almost all of which also sport equally complex, patchwork quilt patterns. Finally, there is an almost dizzying array of little blue and rufous “flycatchers” (Old World flycatchers not to be confused with those in the New World), and an array of confusing leaf-warblers and bush-warblers, many of which require hefty servings of patience and experience to identify with confidence. Finally, there are the sunbirds, a feast of color so dazzling that even the most jaded birder could not help but feel a pang of excitement at their appearance.
And here is the best part. We saw species in all of these wonderful groups almost every day. In fact, there were new birds and new names every day, all amidst a display of flowering rhododendron that almost had to be seen to be believed. Layer onto this the unique culture and history, exotic architecture and beautiful artwork, and some of the most gentle and polite people you’ll ever meet (weren’t the children wonderful?), and you truly do have the trip of a lifetime.