Bhutan Birding Tour

Text : Malabika Mitra………BHUTAN

Text : Dr. Malabika Mitra

An MBBS but never practiced as a physician, rather pursued her dream and became one of the most famous Kathak dancers of her time. An ardent traveler, Malabika has traveled across the globe. She is very keen on wildlife-watching and nature photography. She regularly visits National Parks, Wildlife Sanctuaries, and other important wildlife hotspots in India and abroad.

My first birding tour and I was really excited. Boarded Padatik Exp from Sealdah (Kolkata) on 5th February 2018. On 6th morning at Siliguri, we joined other team members Brataraj, a young photographer and Mr Girish Ketkar and Mrs. Sushma Ketkar ji, a couple from Pune with long experience of birding. We started for Jaigaon; a small team where I’m the oldest and most inexperienced one.

We were supposed to reach Jaigaon and enter Bhutan by 1 ‘o’ clock, but severe traffic jam delayed us for another two hours or so. We finally reached Phuentsholing, the bordering town (West Bengal – Bhutan) at 3 ‘o’ clock Bhutan Standerd Time, which is a 30m ahead of India. We managed to get required permit and started for Paro. Siddhartha, the skipper and the photography mentor from Wandervogel Adventures couldn’t join us today for some unavoidable reasons; he is supposed to join us at Paro the day after tomorrow.

Our journey started in a very comfortable Toyota bus which is scheduled to be with us for the entire tour. Just after crossing Gedu, it started raining. A dark rainy evening with almost impenetrable fog, hence the visibility was almost zero. Mr Pema, the driver, a person with a combination of skill and experience, somehow managed to drop us safely at our hotel at Paro at 10:00 at night. Siddhartha was always in touch, cared for every detail to make us comfortable.

On 7th Feb morning we started early for Chele la with a local birding guide. On way we saw Kalij Pheasant, Alpine Accentor, Yellow Billed Blue Magpie. Experienced birder Mr Girish and Sushma ji helped me to identify the birds. Himalayan Monal both male and female were too quick to vanish and we could only had a glimpse of them. When we reached the top of Chele la at 3988 mts above sea level, it was cold and we enjoyed authentic Bhutanese breakfast. Just as we got busy with our food , suddenly a big flock of Snow Pigeon came flying, landed on the rock beside us and fluttered back even before we could put our plates down. Only consolation was that we could see them. On our way back we spent some time trekking and searching Blood Pheasant but with no luck. En route we found Soptted Nutcracker, Blue-fronted and Hodgson’s Red Start, Prinia etc. Post lunch we went to Paro river-bed and saw Ibisbill, Plumbeous Water Redstart, White Wagtail, Brown dipper etc.

Next day morning Mr Tashi took us for birding in Drugyal Dzong area where we saw many birds like different variety of Laughing Thrush, Russet Sparrow, Tree Sparrow, Green backed Tit, Rufous Breasted Bush Robin, Grey Bushchat etc but the greatest entertainer of the morning was a tiny Wall Creeper. It creeped the wall, searched food, gave a short flying display only to come back at the same place and was modeling for us for some more time. Starting the day with a happy note, we were delighted to welcome Siddhartha in our group after receiving from Paro Airport and set for Punakha via Thimpu.

Reaching Thimpu Mr Pema went to immigration office for further permission. By that time we had our lunch and did some shopping. Again we started from from Thimpu, but were too late to reach Royal Botanical Garden in time. The park gate was already officially closed, but the man at the gate was kind enough to allow us inside for a short visit. Not much we could see except some Blue-fronted Redstarts. We reached Punakha in the evening.

On 9th, very early in the morning we set out in search of the rare White Bellied Heron on Pho Chu river bed within the Buffer zone of Zigme Dorji National Park, but no luck there. Consolation prize were a big flock of Rudy Shelduck, a few Goosander, Crested Kingfisher, Brown Dipper, Ibisbill, Indian Cormorant etc. In the afternoon we decided to visit Buri-chu heron nesting area for a Wild-Heron-Chase. This river bed again turned into a disappointment. It was a 150 km drive to and fro the expected spot and we entertained ourselves clicking Chestnut Breasted Rock Thrush, Blue Throated Barbet, Slaty-backed forktail, Yellow Wagtail etc.

Next day early in the morning we were ready to move at 6am. Yet, there was no news of sighting of White Bellied Heron nearby, so we moved straight to Phobjikha valley via Pelela. On our way we found White Capped Water Redstart and Red Crossbill and we were in good mood but apprehensive as road repair and widening work was going on all over Bhutan. As was expected, at Pele la it was a great anticlimax with broken road, dust and trucks moving every 3 to 5 mins. A Paradise for bird watcher is lost for the time being. We found a few small birds here and there among of which I liked Rufous Breasted Accentor, Black Faced Laughingthrush and White Browed Fulvetta. Some Himalayan Vultures were thermaling with no intention to land anywhere nearby. We left for Phobjikha valley. En route we had a short stop over at Gangtey Monastery built in the 16th Century.

After entering Phobjikha valley we managed to spot some Black Necked Cranes on marshland even before we reached our hotel and we were elated. After a hurried lunch we left hotel to reach the boundary area of marshland where we found several groups of Black Necked Cranes in different actions though they were quite far from us. Suddenly a big flock started flying we reached the field where they landed for feeding. We had close shots of them in many moods and from different angles.

Back to hotel we suddenly realized that it was bitterly cold. Next morning when we had enough of Cranes in the marshland we found time to look around us. It was a beautiful valley with breathtaking landscape covered with morning frost that was glittering in rising sun. A Eurasian Sparrow Hawk bade us goodbye, had seen a few small birds on our way to Trongsa Yangkhil Resort. The beautiful garden of the resort offers good opportunity for birding. We found White Throated Laughingthrush, Bhutan Laughingthrush, Blue Whistling Thrush, Yellow Billed Blue Magpie, Striated Laughingthrush etc.

On 12th February Yellow Billed Blue Magpie said good morning while we were at breakfast table and the day was memorable. On our way to Tingtibi, we stopped several times on indication of Siddhartha, Mr Pema or our local guide Sonam and we were rewarded with sighting of many birds of which most impressive to me were Crimson Breasted Woodpecker, Green Tailed Sunbird and Orange Breasted Leaf Bird. Off course these are a few of the long list. There were Rosefinches, Green Backed Tit, Yellow Breasted Green Finch, Black Bulbul, Black Capped Bulbul, Rufous Sibia, Yellow Bellied Fantail, golden Throated Barbet and many more. But the climax was still to come. Near the Mangdi Chu and Bertey River Confluence, a promising location for White Bellied Heron, while we were casually walking and taking snaps of White Throated Bulbul and White Capped Water Redstart, the long waited White Bellied Heron was suddenly spotted on the other side of the river. Pema immediately came back to take us towards the expected landing point of the bird. And there it was gracefully standing still on a strong in the river bed. The stance was captivating. We watched it for quite some time, and to get closer view we started climbing down to the river bed and then walked alongside the river. But it eluded us and vanished from our sight. We heard that only about 30 such Herons are still alive in this world and I’ve seen one of them! I felt really blessed. It appeared when we almost lost hope and made our tour a real successful one. When we come close to nature we learn to accept, be humble and surrender to nature.

13th February our schedule was to walk around Tingtibi area. Passing through a small village we saw Siberian Stonechat, Grey-backed Shrike, Long-tailed Shrike and Rufous Cheeked Laughingthrush. Beyond the village we were surrounded by bird-noise. I could click only White Throated Bulbul, Spider Hunter and a Crimson Sunbird but seen many more like Mountain Tailorbird, Fire-breasted Flowerpecker, Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babbler. More surprise was waiting for us. In dense foliage of forest uphill we saw 2 pairs of Rufous Necked Hornbills. First we had only a glimpses, but then we had full view of them by turn. 2 of them had flown but the other 2 gave us some more time to take photographs. Then we boarded our bus and tried to explore other areas.

Tingtibi is relatively a warm area and Palash and Rhododendron trees were in full bloom. The gorgeous red and green forest and blue sky gave us a beautiful canvas and we went on clicking Black Capped Bulbul, Black Bulbul, Rufous Sibia, Green Leaf Bird and even Gee’s Golden Langur feeding. On our way back to hotel we saw a Blue Rockthrush, Ashy Drongo and some more tiny birds. There were some Assamese Macaque teasing a cow, some young ones were fighting among themselves. Returned to hotel for lunch and some rest.

From the window of my room I found one Blue-throated Barbet and a Blue-bearded Bee-eater. At 3:30 PM we again tried our luck at the same place beside Mangdi Chu river where we found the White Bellied Heron last evening. After some time it was finally spotted on a tree branch on the other side of the river. Though the light condition was poor, we managed to get some decent snaps. Other members decided to go to river bank to have closer view. I decided to stay back and got some other birds like Blue Throated Barbet and Nuthatch. It was a very satisfying day and a bit sad as the beautiful tour comes to an end.

14th morning we got ready for a long journey and decided not to stop without a very good reason like sighting of some rare bird species. Nature smiled mischievously and even the fear of getting stranded for road repair couldn’t make us stick to our resolution. We stopped for Great Barbet, Grey Tree Pie, Jungle Fowl, Olive-backed Tit, Imperial Pigeon and A Crested Serpent Eagle at regular intervals. Ultimately a Barking Dear bade us goodbye from Bhutan hills and reached Gelephu, our exit point to India. On our way to Guwahati via New Bongaigaon we relished our memories before ultimately staying goodbye to our team mates who became a family for those few days.