BIRD WATCHING IN BHUTAN
Text : Maitreya Sukumar | Photographs : Shashank Dalvi . . . . . . . . . .
Text : Maitreya Sukumar
Maitreya Sukumar, 14, is a student of Class IX at the The Shri Ram School, Moulsari Campus Gurgaon. He has been birding since he was six and has been to several birding hotspots in India and in overseas locations. Maitreya is an active member of the Delhi Bird Club and his school’s Paryavaran Club. He writes regularly for environment and wildlife magazine Saevus.
Photographs : Shashank Dalvi
Shashank Dalvi’s interest in wildlife dates back to his school days. He is an alumnus of WCS-NCBS masters program. In 2012, he was a part of the team that discovered the mass hunting of Amur Falcons in Nagaland, which led to an international campaign. He is one of the core members of the Amur Falcon Conservation Project. In 2015, he completed the first Indian ‘Big Year’ for birds, which took him to almost all corners of India. In 2016, he was a member of the team that described the ‘Himalayan Forest Thrush’, a new bird species to science from India (only 4th ever after India’s independence). His long-term interest is to pioneer a nationwide conservation program for birds outside protected areas.
Bhutan trip report | March 2017
24th of March 2017 was an important day for all of us- this was ours (and Shashank’s) maiden visit to Bhutan. The flight to Paro takes you right past Mount Everest and Kanchenjunga which is superb. After landing at Paro airport in the afternoon we drove to the hotel to have lunch. Soon after that, our birding began in earnest.
Paro and Chele La
Our first stop was the Pare Chu river near the town of Paro. The river is long, fast flowing and there are hundreds of boulders everywhere providing perfect habitat for Ibisbills and the surrounding marshes provide perfect habitat for Black-Tailed Crakes- the birds we had come here for. White-Capped and Plumbeous Water Redstarts kept us company while a Brown Dipper flew past. Patience, keen ears and eyes were all what was needed for the Crake. After much peering into a slow running ditch near the river, finally out of nowhere, a Black-Tailed Crake popped up from beneath our feet almost and ran quickly into the dense undergrowth. Soon after that the bird revealed itself fully to us and gave us fantastic views of its grey under-parts, yellow bill and red legs. Hodgson’s Redstarts and a White-Collared Blackbird were other new birds seen as well as numerous sparrows, Rufous Sibias and Brown Dippers. Thrilled with the start we had we had dinner and drifted off into a dreamless sleep, ready for a fantastic day of birding at Chele La.
Next day, in the wee hours of the early morning we drove on the long and winding road towards Chele La for the Blood Pheasants. The road was covered with snow as we moved higher and despite the Avomin tablet I had before setting out, my stomach started churning. The arrival of birds put an end to it though. A Spotted Nutcracker took off from the snow-covered roadside and three Blood Pheasants made an appearance on the road- two males and a female. Soon we got down and a male Blood Pheasant came out in the open, his silvery grey and white plumage with red streaks on the under-parts contrasting perfectly with his blood red face and his red legs having two tiny spurs on them. He was part of a big group of males of his own kind along with females, rufous brown in colour, each with a grey crest and an orange tinge to the face. Walking on the road covered with snow, we started birding immediately as we had no time to waste.
Soon a mixed flock of tits comprising of Rufous-Vented, Coal and Grey Crested Tits started flying like bullets through the canopy of the numerous conifer trees. The squeaky calls of Blood Pheasants echoed across the valley while a White-Winged Grosbeak flew between the trees. Ahead, a beautiful male Monal looking superb with his long crest, green head with bare blue facial skin and numerous sheens of orange, blue yellow and green, ran helter-skelter before flying up to a nearby cliff face. Spotted Laughingthrushes, a Rufous-Breasted Accentor, a Himalayan White-Browed Rosefinch, a huge flock of Plain Mountain Finches, numerous tits, Blue-Fronted Redstarts, two more Monals, numerous Nutcrackers and hordes and hordes of Blood Pheasants filled the drive up to the pass. Finally we reached the pass to be welcomed by its prayer flags. A White-Winged Grosbeak perched on the conifers and finally my binoculars came across a bird that I had been waiting to see for quite some time- a Eurasian Wren. He was singing in the cold damp air of the pass with his red mouth being very prominent. A pair of White-Browed Fulvettas was a nice addition to the birds we saw.
The descent from Chele La produced some wonderful birding. A White-Throated Redstart was one of the star birds while a Himalayan Bluetail was another.
Off to Punakha
A quick lunch later, we set off for our next destination Punakha. But first we decided to check out a site called Babesa on the way to Punakha for the Ibisbill and the Solitary Snipe which had been seen a few days earlier. After finding out directions to the site we finally reached the river after a long drive downhill. As soon as we reached the river- Ibisbill! We were thrilled to see this bird after 4 long years of waiting. The bird looked silvery grey with a long red down-curved bill and pink legs along with a black face which was with a white front as the bird was still in non-breeding plumage. Thrilled we went to look for the snipe and just in a matter of few minutes the bird was spotted sitting under a willow tree- a far cry from its usual habitat on the alpine bogs of Sela Pass in Western Arunachal Pradesh further away where one has to carry a scope to see the bird or wade through ice cold water. Thankfully we did not need it here as the bird was in close proximity. Mission successful we prepared for a drive through Dochu La to reach the Lamperi Botanical gardens where we soon got an Alpine Thrush and a pair of Brown Parrotbills having stout yellow bills. The drive to Punakha also yielded my 800th bird for India, the Mountain Bulbul. A Himalayan Buzzard was a nice addition. We drove down to the nearby Mo Chu River in search of the White-Bellied Heron, but failed to see it.
The next day proved the same with no sighting of the heron and very low bird activity. However a Grey-Sided Bush Warbler cheered us up a bit as well as the sight of a Hen Harrier flying close to the hotel. The drive to Trongsa yielded Himalayan Swiftlets, Tibetan Siskins, a Dark-Breasted Rosefinch and a few Rufous-Fronted Bushtits among others.
South to Tingtibi
The next day we embarked on the long and ardous drive to Tingtibi which is much lower down in elevation as compared to Trongsa. White-Throated and Chestnut-Crowned Laughingthrushes were aplenty as well as numerous Blue-Whistling Thrushes. Soon we stopped at a bridge overhanging a small stream. This was the habitat of one of the most enigmatic birds of the Eastern Himalayas- the Yellow-Rumped Honeyguide. In a matter of few seconds Shashank called “Honeyguide!” And there this beauty was, perched on a twig where a depression had a small patch of grass. We also were rewarded with a sighting of the bird perched on a tree and feeding near the bee nests. Elated, we drove on descending steeply with every turn and Striated Prinias started popping up everywhere on the grassy hillsides- singing loudly. Their smaller cousins, the Rufescent Prinias were not as vociferous and were moving about rather fast in the bushes. Other interesting birds seen on this drive were a White-Browed Piculet (which was one of my dream birds for quite some time and India’s smallest woodpecker) and my first ever Golden-Throated Barbet. In the evening we headed for the Gomphu range of the Royal Manas National Park where we saw mixed hunting flocks of Lesser Necklaced and White-Crested Laughingthrushes, four White-Browed Scimitar-Babblers, Sultan Tits, a Blyth’s Shrike Babbler and many more species. A pair of Great Hornbills seen before this was a nice addition as well as a Blue-Throated Flycatcher.
The next day had very little bird activity and we saw only two lifers- the Blyth’s Paradise Flycatcher as well as a Pale Blue Flycatcher. Disappointed we headed off for our next destination- Bumthang where big groups of Magpies and Red-billed Choughs welcomed us to this town in a valley reminiscent of Leh. Tired we slept for the night.
Finally Thrumshigla, Yongkhala and the Tragopan
The next morning before sunrise we headed off for Yongkhala. To reach our destination we had to cross through the Thrumshing La pass. Red Crossbills, our much awaited lifers congregated on a nearby tree while more Blood Pheasants of the Thibetanus subspecies were feeding on the roadsides. Thrumshing La is easiest the best place in the world to see the Thibetanus subspecies of Blood Pheasant- the only places where this subspecies occurs in India- Sela and Mandala are filled with locals who crave for their meat and thus are much harder to find there. More Monals filled the paths and we also got two more lifers in this pass- Green Shrike-Babbler and Hodgson’s Treecreeper. But still no sighting of the Tragopan.
The descent towards Yongkhala produced wonderful birding. At a big patch of Rhododendron trees near Namling which had a few flowers on them we stopped our car and walked the steep climb which became less steep at an area where the rhododendrons were everywhere. Little did we realize that the tables were about to be turned: we had not seen much on this day and this was going to change it all. Shashank climbed down into a little gully-like area while we stayed above scouting the flowering bushes. When he whistled, I knew he had found a new bird and it was……. Mrs Gould’s Sunbird! One of Asia’s real beauties and a dream bird for me! It was a wonderful moment for me as I put up my binoculars to look at its red upperparts perfectly complementing its yellow underparts and its long purple tail. It was part of a large flock of Green-Tailed Sunbirds, Rufous-Winged Fulvettas and a Whistler’s Warbler. Rufous-Capped babblers soon joined the party as were big flocks of Rufous-Vented Yuhinas. Soon arrived another beauty- a male Fire-Tailed Sunbird whose long red tail was much longer than its body. Then we found another Fire-Tailed Sunbird which was moulting into its breeding plumage. Delighted with this interlude we headed on towards Yongkhola.
In our excitement we had forgotten to plan for lunch. There is no place for a meal once you cross Sengor but we didn’t know that and had to settle for leftovers from breakfast. The sacrifice was worth it as post lunch birding was breath-taking! Right after lunch came a Yongkhala specialty- the Rufous-Throated Wren-Babbler. We were walking down the road looking for the bird when suddenly came a call of warbling notes. Wren Babbler! The bird was clearly nearby and suddenly, I looked to my right, there it was- right in front of me- a dark brown bird with a grey face and a brilliantly coloured rufous-orange throat. We watched this bird for a few minutes before he suddenly disappeared into the undergrowth. At that moment something catapulted down the slope and landed nearby…….Scaly Laughingthrush! Another Lifer! We were absolutely thrilled at the prospect of having seen two lifers in one stretch. But more was to come.
A Gold-Naped Finch landed in front of our car when suddenly a dull coloured female pheasant hopped on to the road …..Tragopan!! At Last! Our much awaited lifer was finally seen by us walking on the roadside. She then walked on the road for a few minutes before she flew up and ran away. Whew! We walked on towards a patch of Bamboo when Shashank picked up the call of a bird that was probably my greatest adversary- the White-Gorgeted Flycatcher. This is one of the toughest flycatchers to see in India and probably the most secretive. After getting unsatisfactory views of this bird flying the others decided that I should do something crazy- get right in the middle of the bamboo and wait for it to appear. While I was waiting and the others were trying to lure the bird into the patch of bamboo near me my ears became abnormally sensitive, catching every bird sound nearby. The contact calls of a tragopan broke the silence while at the same time numerous Great Barbets and a Collared Owlet were also calling. After what seemed like a very long time I looked to my left and saw a movement. Could this finally be it? Yes it was! White-Gorgeted Flycatcher bang in the open singing loudly. It then looked at me for a few seconds before disappearing. I could not believe it! I had overcome my greatest adversary! Delighted we reached Trogon Villa late in the evening and slept.
Next day we decided to bird further down from Trogon Villa with the sole focus of seeing and photographing specialities like the Ward’s Trogon, the Sikkim Wedge-Billed Babbler and the Beautiful Nuthatch. As soon as we hit a patch of small bamboo the call came: klukluklukluklukluklu! Ward’s Trogon! We played the call for quite a bit of time but no response. Even the second time we played the call in a small gully but no sighting. However other birds made up for this by presenting themselves one after another- Golden-Breasted Fulvettas, Rufous-Capped Babblers, a Gold-Naped Finch male, Alpine thrush, Two Yellow-Rumped Honeyguides, Bar-Throated Minlas, A Red-Tailed Minla, A Black-Eared Shrike Babbler, A Pygmy Blue Flycatcher and lots more. The high point of the morning was when a beautiful male Tragopan came up in front of us and crossed the road barely 10 metres away.
After catching our breath, we drove back to the same Rhododendron patch we had stopped at yesterday to try for the Fire-Tailed Myzornis which Shashank had seen yesterday. But no luck. However the Sunbirds, Yuhinas and the Fulvetta kept us company along with a Buff-Barred Warbler and a Yellow-Browed Tit. On the way back numerous Nepal House Martins were nesting on a cliff face and we soon stopped at a gully to try for another speciality of this region- the Sikkim Wedge-Billed Babbler. After trying unsuccessfully in one gully we gave up temporarily. Soon we found another Alpine Thrush on the roadside when Shashank uttered those words- Wedge-Billed. And soon through my binoculars I was looking at one of the most rarely seen birds in the world- A Sikkim Wedge-Billed Babbler looking black with his long wedge like bill and a grey supercilium.
Soon we left the spot to try for another specialty- the rarely seen Beautiful Nuthatch. But this was unlike any other Northeast birding I had ever done before- lying on the road and looking up at the high canopy. Our first attempt was very unsuccessful with only a few fleeting glimpses. Disappointed, we left the place, reversed direction and drove up a few hundred metres to trogon elevation. We weren’t feeling particularly optimistic-the trogon had led us on for hours with his calling that morning without showing himself, and having missed the bird in Mishmi, we were resigning ourselves to one more trogon-less trip. But all this was about to change. As we drove up, the weather had closed in-it was cloudy, misty and drizzling slightly-perfect trogon weather. And finally there he was-a beautiful male Ward’s Trogon perched in the open looking dark grey with a pink eye ring, a pink bill with a blue base and pinkish red underparts. He was soon joined by a female who had yellow instead of pink underparts.
We would have been happy to end the day with the Ward’s Trogon but Bhutan gave us another parting gift. A quick stop on the descent produced the Beautiful Nuthatch that had eluded us earlier that day.
Tragopan, Trogon, Beautiful Nuthatch and Sikkim Wedge-billed Babbler, the big four-all in one day! To see a combination of birds like this is very rare. And this was a lucky break indeed as, on reaching the hotel we heard from our family that there was an emergency and we had to cut short our trip.
Despite terrible roads and long journeys, Bhutan yielded a wonderful collection of birds. I noticed that here eastern Himalayan birds are much bolder than in Arunachal and that Bhutan offers one of the best birding opportunities in the world. The diverse variety of habitats- lowland subtropical and temperate broadleaved forest with bamboo that yield the big four, high altitude alpine forests with meadows that are filled with Blood Pheasants and Monals and finally fast flowing rivers that yield one of the world’s rarest herons plus numerous Ibisbills, yielded such a variety of birds that I was completely awed while watching them. Bhutan is arguably one of the best places in the world to see all such beautiful species existing together.
Image © Shashank Dalvi