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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Bhutan

2015 Tour Narrative

I’m not sure exactly who spotted it first – probably several of us saw him at the very same time as we were all scattered, the bird was only about 30 metres ahead and standing right in the centre of the road! Gathering together, our quarry remained pretty motionless while his mate fed quietly nearby. Not at all wary they remained out in the open until they heard some territorial vocalisations from a competing male. Immediately he went in to overdrive, appeared to inflate himself and scurried directly at us. Coming within 20 feet he couldn’t have been more eager to perform! After this amazing encounter, we knew then that Blood Pheasant would be the winner of the end of tour Bird of the Trip poll and we were right. What we didn’t know was just how easily he’d win.

We were already a week into our time in Bhutan – and this was already our fifth spectacular game bird. Just a few days earlier we’d enjoyed a couple of decent performances from four resplendent Himalayan Monals and had already seen three, and would go on to see another three, Satyr Tragopans. The former, like an oversized fluorescent Turkey, also had us transfixed and we’d thought before that surely birds shouldn’t be this big and this colour, and if they are – shouldn’t they stay hidden? Our monals were on the Pele La and that was then only our fifth full day in the Land of the Thunder Dragon, and we were well on our way to having another fabulous Bhutan tour.

Importantly, virtually everyone saw all of the species that received higher-ranking votes in the ‘Bird of the Tour’ poll – on how many tours, let alone ones where most of the birding is in the forest – can we say that? Everyone saw the Blood Pheasants, the luminous Himalayan Monals and the Satyr Tragopans, everyone saw the Beautiful Nuthatches, everyone saw the Ward’s Trogon and everyone even saw the Sikkim Wedge-billed Babblers the sang in our faces. Everyone saw ALL the best birds in Bhutan.

It’s seemingly inevitable that on every tour groups discuss how we’re doing compared to previous trips and how we’re shaping up to their expectations. I’ve lost count now of how many times I’ve said that the Sunbird Bhutan tour just can’t get better…and yet it does. Year after year they just keep getting better. Where will it end? On our previous 16 Bhutan tours we’ve found umpteen new birds for the country. This year however we didn’t find any although we thought we had in the form of a magnificent male Mandarin Duck but it turned out what was probably the same bird had been seen the previous autumn. Nevertheless just look at the list of specialities that we did stumble across – Blood and Kalij Pheasants, Satyr Tragopan; Himalayan Monal, Yellow-rumped Honeyguide, three species of hornbill — including umpteen Rufous-necked; Ward’s Trogon; Blue-bearded Bee-eater; Snow, Speckled Wood, Yellow-footed and Pin-tailed Green Pigeons; Black-tailed Crake; Ibisbill; Greater Adjutant; Beautiful Nuthatch; Wallcreeper; Spotted Elachura; wren babblers that included Long-billed and Rufous-throated; Sikkim Wedge-billed Babbler; Himalayan Cutia; Black-headed Shrike Babbler; Golden-breasted Fulvetta, Yellow-throated and Rufous-winged Fulvettas; White-naped Yuhina; Brown, Black-throated and White-breasted Parrotbills; Crimson-browed, Scarlet and Gold-naped Finches. It’s a huge list that includes many of the eastern Himalayas’ most sought after birds.

But there’s far, far more to any tour than the star birds and, as always, this year’s Bhutan tour was simply brimming over with memorable moments and stupendous encounters. It got off to a decent start with an early morning flight along the southern edge of the Himalayan Mountain chain but unfortunately it was a somewhat cloudy and our views of the higher peaks were a little flat. Nevertheless, once in Paro we were met by our knowledgeable guides, and our superbly skilled driver, and headed off in search of our first birds. Our ‘up and at ‘em’ approach yielded a spectacular Wallcreeper among our very first Bhutanese species. Moments later, we found a Black-tailed Crake in a small roadside marsh while also before lunch we were watching a pair of Ibisbill as they strutted among riverine pebbles. What a day – and what superbly a hospitable Bhutanese welcome! Lunch was a tasty introduction to Bhutanese cuisine and that theme continued throughout – great birds, eating, more great birds and more eating, still more great birds and still more eating.

We were up early the following morning, after a night that never seemed quite long enough, with the Dochu La, our first Bhutanese pass, beckoning. True to form, it yielded a few of its jewels – the best of which included two eventually co-operative Fire-tailed Myzornis. As we descended the old packhorse trail down the eastern side of that pass that same morning, we encountered our first Bhutanese game birds, a typically elusive female Satyr Tragopan and a handsome male Kalij Pheasant. More cooperative however were our first Spotted Laughingthrushes.

Spending the following two nights at a guesthouse not far from Punakha, once Bhutan’s winter capital, gave us the opportunity to relax a little and look at a few of the regions more common species. These included a Slender-billed Scimitar-babbler close to the hotel grounds, good numbers of waterfowl (including the aforementioned male Mandarin Duck) on a nearby river and a close range Crested Kingfisher. After an enjoyable, and relatively leisurely, morning in the Mo Chhu valley, we took an insightful guided tour inside Punakha’s magnificent dzong. Even the most fanatical birders among us felt that our time had been well spent.

A Yellow-rumped Honeyguide was the highlight of the following morning with a party of high elevation Himalayan Cutias being our pre-lunch treat. Our second major pass, the Pele La, welcomed us the following morning and it was here we spent time searching for some even higher altitude specialities. The day’s primary target, the aforementioned Himalayan Monal, gave itself up in fine style and quite quickly while other pre-breakfast goodies included a superb male Satyr Tragopan, a Darjeeling Woodpecker, three demure Rusty-flanked Treecreepers and a singing Plain-backed Thrush while, as we descend in to Central Bhutan later in the afternoon, we were treated to some particularly inquisitive Brown Parrotbills.

We moved on to Trongsa with its similarly imposing dzong. Spending the night there, we soon headed up and over the Yotong La – spending time with a superb Great Parrotbill on route. Our next destination was a guesthouse in Bumthang - replete with log-burning stoves and buckwheat pancakes. This comfortable abode would be the last roof over our head for a while as we headed off camping! Not that we needed to fret - our introduction to Bhutanese camping went smoothly – everyone slept, the tents were sufficiently comfortable and spacious and, as if we ever doubted it, the camp crew hard working and capable. It was all just as well, since we’d all have more days under canvas later on the tour!

Over the years we’ve found that the drive over Bhutan’s highest road pass, the mighty Thrumsing La between central and eastern Bhutan (effectively between Bumthang and Sengor), provides some of the best opportunities to encounter pheasants and 2015 provided no exception. We saw just two Blood Pheasants this year – but what an encounter it was. Our first camp, the one below Sengor, was our highest and always the coldest, but the mild weather we’d been experiencing continued.

We reached the middle Limithang road with just three primary targets remaining - the only two on this section of the road being the often vociferous Sikkim Wedge-billed Babbler and the ever elusive Ward’s Trogon! A few of us had glimpsed the trogon on our first day on the middle section of this magnificent birding road – but none of us had seen it well. The bird wasn’t seen, or even heard on day two and then finally, almost at the last site on day three we heard it. Our pace quickened… it wasn’t far away and we approached the bend up ahead cautiously. The bird wasn’t immediately in view, but clearly wasn’t very far away either and, after a brief spell of playback it stopped calling altogether. We waited anxiously, and fortunately it called again a couple of minutes later and then again and again. Eventually he showed – and sat right out. Phew – a good looking bird AND a major relief! The trogon had taken a lot of effort but had eventually given itself up – as eventually so did Sikkim Wedge-billed Babbler. Now they were simply brilliant – good lookers and with a song to match! We’d half expected to have been camping for three more nights on the lower Limithang road but a comfortable new, and perfectly sited, guest house had been completed last year and once again we were fortunate to be among its first foreign guests.

Once we left the Limithang road Beautiful Nuthatch was the major remaining target – and again this ever-elusive species took a while but our perseverance was eventually rewarded and they gave themselves up at one of our sites down the Zhemgang road. And then we could relax and enjoy the birds we’d come so far to see – we revelled in views of multiple Blue-capped Rock Thrushes, in myriad Golden Langurs, Sultan Tits and White-naped Yuhinas. The hills of Bhutan spill out into the plains of Assam at Gelephu, our final Bhutanese halt and it was here that we had our best encounters of both Rufous-necked and Wreathed Hornbills.

Then it was on down to Geylephu a small town close to the Indian border – and even there new birds beckoned.          

All too soon however it was time to say goodbye to the crew who’d taken such superb care of us over the previous weeks and to leave Bhutan. The drive back to Gauhati in Assam was thankfully uneventful and was certainly enlivened by more than a few birds but the rarest, if not the best, of these, the 200 or so Greater Adjutants, had to wait until we reached the city of Gauhati itself. We had more of the same the following morning – hot weather and lots of birds - and once in Delhi we settled, briefly, in to our comfortable hotel before it was all over. We returned to Delhi airport and started to head home, or wherever else our travels would take us…

Our Bhutan tour is simply brimming over with memorable moments and stupendous encounters but that said our memories are sure to fade. Hopefully that won’t happen too quickly and I for one would hope that we’ll long remember our encounters with Blood Pheasant, Himalayan Monal, Satyr Tragopan, Ward’s Trogon, Sikkim Wedge-billed Babbler and Beautiful Nuthatch to mention but a few. I wrote at the end of last year’s tour report ‘or perhaps the memories that will linger longest won’t be avian at all – perhaps our most savoured memories will be of the Bhutanese scenery, of hillsides cloaked in dense forest with magnificent snow-capped peaks as a back drop, or of our crew’s magnificent efforts to keep us happy and entertained’.

The birding in Bhutan is awesome, awesome and I’m in little doubt that this tiny kingdom hosts some of the best birding on the planet. And after a tour like we’d just experienced, who could argue?

Updated: May 2015