Bhutan Apr 09—May 01, 2016

Posted by Dion Hobcroft

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Dion Hobcroft

Dion Hobcroft has been working for VENT since 2001. He has led many tours (more than 160) to Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, Bhutan, Indonesia, India, China, Southwest ...

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Bhutan, a remote mountainous Buddhist Kingdom, come democracy, caught between India and China, has developed an outstanding reputation as a country where one can see the incredible bird fauna of the eastern Himalayas. VENT has been traveling here since 1994, sometimes offering two tours a year. This was my tenth visit to the Land of the Thunder Dragon, and it never disappoints.

Fire-tailed Myzornis

Fire-tailed Myzornis— Photo: Ansar Khan

 

By April 10 our complete group had assembled in Delhi, convening at the comfortable Radisson Hotel. In the late afternoon we had a jolt from an earthquake, apparently 6.8 on the RS, centered in the Hindu Kush. Around the hotel we spotted a few birds; most interesting were a small flock of Rosy Starlings, a pair of Brahminy Starlings, and some Dusky Crag-Martins.

Our tour began on the morning of the 11th and it was to be an early start, as our flight left at 5 am. We had good views of some of the great Himalayan peaks—Kanchenjunga and Jomolhari; Everest though, was lost in the clouds. At the most beautiful airport in the world, Paro, we met up with Khandu, our cultural guide, and Chardor, our steady driver. Immediately we were into the birds, and we were watching a very confiding Ibisbill within 20 minutes of arriving in the Kingdom. A surprise was a Red-wattled Lapwing, rare at this altitude. By the time we had arrived at our hotel we had seen a good 20 species including Eurasian Hoopoe, a swirling flock of Plain Mountain Finches, and the White-collared Blackbird. A bit shell-shocked from our early start, we spent a couple of hours recovering and then, after lunch, went out exploring, making it out to the Drukgyel Dzong, a ruined fortress from the seventeenth century that was built to celebrate the defeat of invading Tibetans. Our first stop in the dry, windy, and hot conditions produced a lovely Black-tailed Crake, a Rosy Pipit, and some well-colored Little Buntings. At the dzong the highlight was a great study of a perched Eurasian Hobby. We finished with a lovely pair of Yellow-billed Blue Magpies attending a herd of horses. It had been a productive first day.

Ibisbill

Ibisbill— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

Ready for a truly fabulous day, we were driving up a remote mountain road heading to a pass called Cheli La that provides access to the secluded Ha Valley, close to the border with China. The birding here is pretty sensational. First up a pair of Kalij Pheasants, the male wing-whirring in display to the female. Then we had a study of a fine pair of Scaly Thrushes. We stopped to look at a small gathering of Pikas and were distracted by a flock of Red Crossbills. The Blood Pheasant gave incredible views; we watched two males singing and chasing the brownish hens. At the pass, a lofty 3,750 meters asl, a pair of male Himalayan Monals chased each other right up onto the road. Beyond its close relatives (Sclater’s and Chinese Monal in China and Myanmar), there is no bird like this on the planet—the iridescent purple, blue, green, copper, black, and white combine to produce one scorcher of a pheasant. All of this action before breakfast, a breakfast in the field, surrounded by primulas, old growth spruce trees, and a cliff-situated nunnery. New birds came thick and fast until lunch: Himalayan Vulture; Snow Pigeon; Collared and White-winged grosbeaks; White-browed Rosefinch; Blue-fronted Redstart; Black-browed, Rufous-vented, Coal, and Gray-crested tits; Hodgson’s Treecreeper; White-browed Fulvetta; Gould’s Sunbird; and so forth. We drove through to the capital city of Thimphu, making a stop at some ponds, hoping for a few migrants with Ruddy Shelduck being of most interest. We rested up in the late afternoon.

Blood Pheasant

Blood Pheasant— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

A fresh start found our band of travelers at Cheri Goempa, one of the most beautiful breakfast locations on the planet: a Buddhist monastery perched high on a cliff, surrounded by national park accessed by an ancient cantilevered bridge over a Himalayan torrent in forests lit by scarlet Rhododendrons. The scarce Yellow-rumped Honeyguide performed dutifully. A pack of dogs chased off a superb Nepal Gray Langur, a woolly leaf monkey that was giving an excellent view. We were distracted by birds: Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, Speckled Wood-Pigeon, Ultramarine Flycatcher, and more. We scoped the peculiar ungulate, the Gray Goral, and sat to a breakfast accompanied by a glowing male Verditer Flycatcher. A stroll down a gentle road picked up a pair of Gray-winged Blackbirds, beautiful Chestnut-crowned Warblers and, as a last gift, a very tolerant Large Hawk-Cuckoo. After a generous break we explored Thimphu, the craft shops, post office, and markets, and picked up some vital last-minute supplies before adjourning.

After breakfast we explored a forest trail at Dochu La, at an altitude of 3,000 meters. Rhododendrons were flowering profusely, and we observed quite a few birds utilizing the flowers for nectar. The best sightings were Darjeeling Woodpecker, Hoary-throated Barwing, Rusty-flanked Treecreeper, and the handsome Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush. We continued on the lateral road to the town of Punakha. This brought about quite a few new bird species of the agricultural areas, common and widely distributed species like Spotted Dove, Red-vented Bulbul, and Long-tailed Shrike. Scarcer in Bhutan but still widely distributed species were a Shikra and a small flock of Scaly-breasted Munias. A Crested Kingfisher gave a great view, as did our first Blue-capped Rock-Thrush. As we headed north to Tashitang, we stopped for a magnificent Pallas’s Fish-Eagle, a threatened species that was remarkably close and tame! Once we had been inducted into the ways of camp life, we explored up the road, giant jungles next to a powerful river, and we quickly notched up some quality birds like the timid Spotted Elachura, now placed in its own family. Whiskered Yuhina, Maroon Oriole, Gray Treepie, and the handsome Greater Yellownape were also recorded. A birthday was celebrated with a baked cake and rations of beer and Black Mountain whisky. Then it was off to bed with the stars shining brightly overhead.

Himalayan Monal

Himalayan Monal— Photo: Ansar Khan

 

Everyone arrived at breakfast and a comfortable night was reported. Birding up the road, we quickly found three quite high quality birds with excellent views of Rufous-chinned Laughingthrush, a glowing male Asian Emerald Cuckoo, and a Crimson-breasted Woodpecker that followed us along. Mixed flocks were quite active, and we spotted quite a lot ranging from Golden-throated Barbet, Black-throated Sunbird, and Small Niltava to Slaty-backed Forktail, Hair-crested Drongo, and Scarlet Minivet. Later in the day a storm started to develop, and it became very dark and pensive. A fruiting tree was quite fortuitous and delivered several Wedge-tailed Pigeons and our first decent view of the charismatic Great Barbet. We began watching some Nepal Fulvettas, and the heavens opened with many spectacular explosions of thunder. It put an end to proceedings, and it rained on and off through the night.

The birds were hungry and bedraggled the next morning, activity overall being very good. A mixed flock of hungry babblers gave excellent views of Rusty-fronted Barwing while a Bay Woodpecker gave some views. A perched Himalayan Cuckoo was a good scoop, as was a Pallas’s Fish-Eagle yet again. A small farm held quite a few birds foraging around the forest edge. A Black Redstart was unusual here. Several Tickell’s Warblers looked quite bright in fresh plumage, ready to breed in the alpine zone. A Green-crowned Warbler gave a good sighting of the incomplete golden spectacle and sang its distinctive song. The session was finished with a lovely sighting of a responsive Yellow-vented Warbler, a scarce breeding specialty of the eastern Himalayas. It was an auspicious day, as the King and Queen of Bhutan were naming their newborn son, the Ghyaltse or Crown Prince, on this day. They settled on Jigme, which means “fearless.” As we returned to Punakha, a terrific crowd in traditional dress thronged the Punakha Dzong, now a decorated monastic fortress, with a hanging of Shabdrung (the man who unified Bhutan) and red cloth fringes. After lunch, a siesta, and a welcome hot shower, we explored along the Mo Chu. Here we found a few lingering migrants or birds adapting to the warming conditions: Barn Swallow, White-throated Kingfisher, Osprey, Citrine Wagtail, and a White Wagtail of the subspecies ocularis. Paddyfield Pipits were seen in display flight, and a perched juvenile Pallas’s Fish-Eagle continued our good run with this rare raptor. A huge flock of Speckled Wood-Pigeons looked out of the norm feeding in a field and balancing precariously on a power line. We found a beautiful male Hodgson’s Redstart, a cooperative Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-Babbler taking a cricket to its nest, and a Crested Bunting.

Satyr Tragopan

Satyr Tragopan— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

Tea, coffee, and biscuit were shared the next day with a Slender-billed Oriole chortling atop a Blue Pine. We returned to the Mo Chu to have a final unsuccessful search for the critically endangered White-bellied Heron. Our big highlight was finding a group of Smooth Otters, seven in total that came out of the water, ate a fish, and gave an outstanding performance. We found our first Chestnut-tailed Starling and Oriental Skylark with a pair of Ibisbill another luminary. After a break we attempted to tour the Punakha Dzong where, after yesterday’s royal ceremony, several relics, some that had not been displayed for four hundred years, attracted a large and colorful crowd of local people. I had never witnessed anything like this—a queue, two in fact, several hundred meters long. The atmosphere was sensational, but it was clear we did not have the time to make a visit. We traveled on to Pele La, making camp at 3,300 meters asl. It was a cloudy night, and the temperature did not get much below 5 degrees Celsius. On the drive we saw several new birds including Black Eagle, White-tailed Nuthatch, Bhutan Laughingthrush, White-browed Shrike-Babbler, Brown Bullfinch, and Dark-rumped Rosefinch. At dusk a Eurasian Woodcock roded over camp.

We explored along the road the next morning. It was a great start to the day—seven Himalayan Monals and three Satyr Tragopans! The male tragopan and monal gave repeat excellent views; it does not get much better than this. Spotted Laughingthrush was less cooperative, sneaking around, but all was forgiven when first a stunning pair of Fire-tailed Myzornis turned up and hung around long enough for everyone to get a really good sighting. Then a Slender-billed Scimitar-Babbler performed beautifully as well. We went to the Phobjikha Valley for lunch where the leader explored the wetlands. For his effort he received two wet feet and a Northern Harrier. Then we made the lengthy drive to Trongsa where extensive road-widening made the going slow, and the destruction to the roadside forest was awful. Despite this we did find a troop of Assamese Macaques, found a Goral perched out on a newly made cliff, and also added a Barking Deer to our mammal tally.

The road-widening was a feature of the next day; in fact, we managed to get the bus stuck in the mud at one point while we ascended the pass at Yutong La. The road works made birding slow here; in fact, it looked like a French battlefield from World War I, and despite a solid effort we did not get much reward. Collared Grosbeaks are always beautiful, however. We pushed on to the Bumthang Valleys where we left the road works behind, and it was remarkably picturesque. Our major prize for the day was the scarce Brown Parrotbill, now frequenting a reduced patch of bamboo following the new domestic airport development. We had a Eurasian Sparrowhawk chasing Plain Mountain Finches right into us, and that was spectacular. Eurasian Magpie made an appearance for the first time, and we had a lovely pair of Black-tailed Crakes. Some folks opted to visit the Jakar Dzong, a working monastery since the sixteenth century. By all accounts it was superb.

Great Parrotbill

Great Parrotbill— Photo: Ansar Khan

 

The road from Jakar to Ura is now very quiet as a bypass road has been built. This worked well for us. Again we enjoyed fabulous views of Himalayan Monal and Satyr Tragopan. This time the Spotted Laughingthrush decided to give us an excellent performance including belting out its powerful song. In Ura itself we explored a scrubby gully that held a small flock of the Himalayan Beautiful Rosefinch. As we drove through the incredible scenery of Thrumsinghla National Park, a pair of Mountain Hawk-Eagles soared from below to eye level and higher. At the pass, the highest of the trip (3,800 m), we found several beautiful male Fire-tailed Sunbirds, another pair of the exquisite Fire-tailed Myzornis, and had two male White-browed Bush-Robins that posed out prominently for the photographers. Descending the road we had a Great Parrotbill encounter not to be forgotten. Another four Satyr Tragopans were sighted, all males and mostly skittish, although two returned to the roadside to devour clover and grit. The weather was beginning to turn dark and overcast, with thunder blasting across the mountains. We made it to camp, and this year (for the first time I believe) we had access to a large building with extra bathrooms and a pot belly stove. It made for a much more comfortable night. The storm rolled through, and a bolt of lightning struck the ground in camp; the “thunder dragon” flexed its atmospheric muscles.

The morning after the storm, the clouds were confused, but it broke mostly clear so we decided to dash up the mountain to try and take care of some unfinished business. This worked quite well, as we were joined by an exquisite male Golden Bush-Robin. Also exquisite was a Scaly-breasted Cupwing and the Hume’s Bush-Warbler with its wonderful lilting song, given with such energy. We had a stunning group of Blood Pheasants, the subspecies here saturated with crimson on the breast, head, and tail. Less co-operative but seen were a Chestnut-headed Tesia and a Long-tailed Thrush. It was time to drop lower, but we descended into a zone of continuous dense fog. Any break saw us exit the bus and try and hoover up as many birds as possible. This is exciting forest here, and we began to strike birds: Orange-bellied Leafbird, Yellow-cheeked Tit, Black-eared Shrike-Babbler, Gray-cheeked Warbler, and Gray-chinned and Short-billed minivets all came in close. Of interest was a Green Cochoa singing; it responded to playback vocally, but would not shift towards us. A trio of Scaly Laughingthrushes gave great views, Ansar even getting photographs of this professional skulker despite the low light conditions. We checked into a hotel! Hot showers! For me, this was the first time at this location where we had typically camped for three nights. Some of us continued birding and were rewarded with great views of both White-crested and Rufous-necked laughingthrushes.

Beautiful Nuthatch

Beautiful Nuthatch— Photo: Ansar Khan

 

We awoke to quite decent conditions, but by the time we had finished breakfast, thick clouds had descended both up and down the valleys. A calling Cutia was lost in the fog. We could not get above or below, and with increasing rain I made the call to head back to the hotel to wait it out. By 9 am it had improved marginally, and while it was socked in above the hotel, we tried our luck below. Breaks in the clouds produced a lot of bird activity. Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoos appeared on the wires, wings fluttering. A Rufous Woodpecker, White-browed Piculet,  Blue-throated Barbet, Blue-throated Flycatcher, Black-chinned and Striated yuhinas, White-throated Fantail (that scared a cow), Gray-throated Babbler, and even a pair of Rufous-throated Partridges that dashed—in fact, flew—across the road were seen, along with the two laughingthrushes some folks had missed the day before. Pale Blue Flycatcher and Crimson-faced Liocichla remained as heard only. A troop of Capped Langurs were tame and not wary of us at all, a good measure of the local wildlife protection. We continued birding straight after lunch to make the most of the reduced gloom, but we could not go any higher than 1,400 meters. Still we found a few flocks heaving with hungry birds. A pair of Sultan Tits put on an awesome display. We picked up Golden and Rufous-capped babblers, the beautiful Black-faced Warbler, White-naped Yuhina, Blue-winged Minla, and a very tame perched Besra. By 4 pm it was all over, as the rain and fog solidified into a whiteout.

Having lost a whole day due to the weather in the middle altitudes at Lingmethang, a lot was riding on this day. It turned out to be utterly superb, even if the weather was still showery and foggy. Driving up to breakfast, well-known world birder and friend Bjorn Anderson tipped us off on some Coral-billed Scimitar-Babblers. As we jumped out of the bus, we scored the first of several Yellow-throated Fulvettas for the day, an Eastern Himalayan specialty. A mighty shadow loomed across and belonged to a stonking male Rufous-necked Hornbill that perched close for excellent views. Calling Himalayan Cutias saw a frantic leader dashing up and down the road until the breakthrough was made, and we enjoyed increasingly good views of this superbly patterned mega. A large flock materialized, dominated by Rusty-fronted Barwings, and then led us to several Greater Rufous-headed Parrotbills, and then finally the outstanding Coral-billed Scimitar-Babblers where it all began! Time for breakfast! As the day proceeded, we continued to find many beautiful and rare birds. Black-throated Parrotbills (the orange-eared population here), Golden-breasted Fulvetta, Black-headed Shrike-Babbler, and Gold-naped Finch all performed superbly. The rare and exceptionally shy Blue-fronted Robin was glimpsed twice by the leader, but we certainly enjoyed its beautiful song. It seemed that rain followed us down the hill. Another tip off from Bjorn that there was a massive flock down the road saw us drive straight down. We made it just in time to draw the flock back up, and there was one of the rarest birds in the country—the Beautiful Nuthatch. Thank you Bjorn and Stig! The flock included a pair of Long-tailed Broadbills. The rain intensified, and we called the end to a very good day.

Rufous-necked Hornbill

Rufous-necked Hornbill— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

Largely a travel day retracing our steps from Yongcola, the day dawned bright and sunny. We had a Sikkim Wedge-billed Babbler singing and the leaves were moving, but it was holding tight, when again we received a tip off of a Ward’s Trogon showing well 10 km upmountain. It was a fateful decision I made, as we dipped on both the babbler and the trogon! Still we enjoyed a few sightings—good views of Red-billed Leiothrix and Streak-breasted Scimitar-Babbler. A very cooperative Gray-sided Bush-Warbler, nesting Nepal House-Martins, and Blyth’s Swift, and then the clock struck drive time. We motored to Trongsa, the blue skies precluding much bird activity.

Again we were back on the road where our ultimate destination was Tingtibi via Shemgang. After a relaxed start we made a few stops and the bird activity was high. A Whistling Hawk-Cuckoo was very responsive and swooped straight into us and landed, which was followed by a flurry of camera action. Cuckoos were in good form, and we had a great look at Large Hawk-Cuckoo and two stunning male Asian Emerald Cuckoos. We crossed a perilous section of road before road works closed the stretch, cheering Dasho Chardor for his excellent driving skill, the man for the job. We made more stops and picked up Yellow-breasted Greenfinch, a male Scarlet Finch, a cooperative Pale Blue Flycatcher, Crimson Sunbird, and Large Wood-Shrike among others. On the final descent we enjoyed a superb pair of Great Hornbills that gave a fabulous scope performance. Our first of the range-restricted Golden Langurs was a big hit. At night we were serenaded by three species of owls.

Gold-naped Finch

Gold-naped Finch— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now firmly in the warmer lowlands, we had to make early starts to get in the best birding activity. Our first task was to explore the bamboo forests along the Gomphu Road. We had a dream run, starting with a fantastic pair of Pale-headed Woodpeckers, a rare and shy species that broke all the rules by perching up and keeping still in the scope. Next we had a small flock of White-hooded Babblers, the buffy-headed juveniles seeming to mimic the parrotbills of this area. Our final major target was one of the said parrotbills, the elusive Lesser Rufous-headed Parrotbill. We found a mixed flock containing several Lesser Rufous-headed with a few Greater Rufous-headed mixed in. Interestingly, the population of Lessers here have some black shading above the eye, contrary to the bird literature. There were plenty of new birds at this altitude and in this habitat. The trip list jumped along during the course of the day with the likes of Pin-tailed Pigeon, Gray-capped Woodpecker, Speckled Piculet, Ashy and White-throated bulbuls, Yellow-bellied and Rufous-faced warblers, Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch, Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush, and the dashing White-browed Scimitar-Babbler.

Our second full day in the Tingtibi-Shemgang began with a successful morning session. One of our key sites produced a pair of the dark blue form of Kalij Pheasant, 20 Great Hornbills, the scarce Blue-winged Laughingthrush, and a stunning male Red-headed Trogon. A Green Magpie was timid amidst a flock of Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrushes while Gray-faced Woodpecker was another good pick-up. Further up the hill a Sikkim Creeper was later joined by a colorful flock of Silver-eared Mesias. The Crimson-faced Liocichla was giving us the runaround, but finally a pair of these secretive laughingthrushes gave themselves up in snippets and relaxed for several good views. An Asian Barred Owlet was handy as was, after a lengthy tracking session, a Collared Owlet when Ansar made the breakthrough. We finished the day with Barred Cuckoo-doves. Those who were keen went on a couple of night drives that were not overly productive, the best sighting being an interesting species of snake, identified as the rare Black Krait.

Red-headed Trogon

Red-headed Trogon— Photo: Ansar Khan

 

Our tour was coming to an end as we wound up and over our final pass, Tama La on the road to Geylephu. The major discovery of the day was when, after stopping to look at a flock of Rufous-necked Hornbills, Dion heard the song of the Rusty-bellied Shortwing up a very steep slope in very thick cover. This appears to be the second record for Bhutan of this scarce East Himalayan endemic. The group kindly allowed me to spend nearly an hour trying to see this very elusive little bird while Ansar continued leading. Despite having it come to within a meter of me on several occasions, I was rewarded with only two brief views. As we descended the pass, an amazing location with valley after valley of stunning evergreen forest, we began to encounter a different bird fauna, more characteristic of subtropical northeast India.

Over the next day-and-a-half we tallied a large number of new birds for our tour as we explored teak forests and riverine grassland habitats near Gelephu. Lesser Whistling-Duck; Black Francolin; Red Junglefowl; Indian Peafowl; Little Cormorant; Little Egret; Black-winged Kite; Rufous-bellied Eagle; White-breasted Waterhen; Great Thick-knee; Common Greenshank; Red Collared-Dove; Thick-billed and Yellow-footed pigeons; Green Imperial-Pigeon; Common Hawk-Cuckoo; Spotted Owlet; White-throated Needletail; Asian Palm-Swift; Chestnut-headed Bee-eater; Oriental Pied Hornbill; Lineated and Coppersmith barbets; Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker; Alexandrine, Rose-ringed, and Red-breasted parakeets; Large Cuckoo-shrike; Black-hooded Oriole; Common Iora; Black Drongo; Eastern Jungle Crow; Cinereous Tit; Black-crested and Red-whiskered bulbuls; Orange-headed Thrush; Slaty-blue Flycatcher; Dusky Warbler; Blyth’s Reed-Warbler; Hill, White-vented, and Jungle mynas; Golden-fronted Leafbird; Purple Sunbird; Rufous Treepie; Asian Fairy-bluebird; and Bengal Bushlark were among the temptations on offer.

We crossed the border from Bhutan into Assam, India where the transformation between the countries is quite instant. We stopped at a couple of wetlands en route to Gauhati. Best of all sightings were a pair of Lesser Adjutants, several Asian Openbill Storks, a breeding plumaged Pheasant-tailed Jacana, and a Wreathed Hornbill. From Gauhati we winged it to Delhi, our tour now complete.

I would like to thank Khandu, Chardor, and our entire camp crew for their excellent work in making this trip such a success. It was great to co-lead the tour with Ansar, “Dasho Jitzi Gomcheng,” a friend for over 16 years. It has been fantastic to see him develop into an accomplished tour leader and a world-class photographer. Ansar and I led a wonderful group, and we had a great adventure.

Dion Hobcroft aka Dasho Hapa Bom (Sir Big Nose!)