Bhutan - Blood on the Snow
by Rajneesh Suvarna
30th March - 7th April 14
Bhutan, the land of the Thunder Dragon; perched high in the Himalayas with its wonderful vistas of unspoilt Himalayan glory, pretty little towns and happy people is always a joy to visit. Birding here is always rewarding and I always look forward to a visit this Shangrila.
Having completed our first leg of the tour in Manas, we arrive at the border crossing in the sleepy town of Samdrup Jonkar, waiting for our passports to be stamped. The 'system' is down so we have to get back the next day. In the morning, we take a birding walk outside town that’s quite productive. After a hot breakfast (our first in six days) we once again make it to the immigration office to find that we are the first guests to go through the new biometric that was being rolled out on that day. The nervous staff battling with the new system expectedly took a long time much to the exasperation of our guide.
We finally set off to Morong where we would camp for the night. We have our lunch spread out on a table under a tree. Eating lunch was pleasurable watching a bulbul's nest above us and the antics of the Crimson Sunbird and Orange-bellied Leafbird. After a short drive, we sighted the Dark rumped swift in the company of its cousins. We saw Soaring Black Eagles and Common Buzzards in the sky and a huge troop of Capped Langurs in the trees as we made our way to the camp. But it didn't end there; we also had our first sighting of the Rufous-throated hornbill and a flock of surprisingly confiding Black-throated Sunbirds. Our camp was on the hillside that afforded a view across valleys, and as expected, we witnessed a fabulous sunset.
We woke up to the call of the Brownish-flanked Bush-warblers as they seemed to be all around our camp, especially the rear of the toilet tents. As we packed up and started off, we ran into a very vocal Blue-winged Laughingthrush, this super skulker did not just come out of the bushes but ventured out until it perched in the open calling away to glory. Mixed hunting parties during our breakfast yielded good views of 2 shrike babblers. The drive further brightened with a pair of Rufous-throated Hornbills perched by the roadside. Other notables of the day included Greenfinch flock that filled a tree and a Barred Cuckoo Dove that had a drink and tucked in for the night. Our long drive ends at the Deothang resort perched high on the hill with a wonderful view of the imposing Tashigang fortress. The night with creature comforts seemed too short with the early departure looming even more..
We start losing altitude as we pass several hills heading towards Limathang, the lowest point on the trip. The brightest spot of the morning though was provided by a loving pair of rufous necked hornbills exchanging berries as a part of their courtship, a Wallcreeper does raise cheers before that. A Green-billed Malkhoa served as a reminder of the altitude we had lost. As we begin to climb towards Warila we decide to take a stop and explore a trail. Things seem quiet with just a Streak-throated Laughingthrush that decides to torment us from the undergrowth and Mountain Hawk Eagle that comes close to inspect us. We are watching a pair of Little Pied Flycatcher chasing other when we are distracted by a flock of Plain mountain Finch, as we move towards them we are drowned in a massive bird wave. Numerous warblers, 2 species each Treecreepers, Leafbirds, Nuthatches but the stars were a friendly pair of Large Niltava that posed splendidly. We pass through miles and miles of hills with Himalayan forests bereft of human settlement, just the road and nature besides.
The morning’s splendid birding, however, was threatened by rain in the afternoon and we approached our camp at Thridangbi amidst a drizzle. The camp set amidst 'grass' sets off jokes on how we might get 'visions' of all the birds that we want to see. As our support team got busy with setting camp we then took a walk from the camp in a drizzle which provided a bonanza as the rains subsided, wave on wave of hunting parties passed us. Superb sightings of Grey-throated Babbler, Nepal Fulvetta and warblers made me rue the decision of leaving the camera behind. The fruitful walk set us in a good mood for an early dinner, which was delicious. Buoyed by the earlier walk and owls calling we took off on a post dinner walk where the excitement was provided by a pair of shinning eyes following us from the meadow besides the road, as we tried to see the creature with our 'head' lights as it bounded into the darkness.
Despite an early start to sight the Tragopan, the long search didn’t prove productive but we had long and close sightings of a large number of skulkers, making us wonder what are the birds smoking. The day kept getting better with handsome views of the Yellow-rumped Honeyguide and a huge mixed flock of warblers. The afternoon was magical; we were swamped by hundreds of Black-throated Parrotbills chattering and swirling around us, less like a flock of birds and more like a school of fish in coral reefs. Eventually, the flock did move on, leaving behind a group of birders trying to recover their breath. But there wasn’t much recovery time as we ran into a large flock of Golden-breasted Fulvettas. And the gold isn’t getting over; we spotted a pair of Gold-naped Finches feeding by a stream. The clouds got darker and there was some hail and as we bundled into the van we spied on a huddled pair of Red-headed Bullfinchs. We arrived at our camp with the cold wind blowing in rain but the hot momos, 'koka', tea and a fire set us right.
The heavens opened up in the night and lashed at our tents with the winds threatening to blow it away, but they held up exceptionally well and kept us cozy. Early next morning we made our way up to Trumshingla pass for our date with the pheasants. Ten minutes into our drive, a white ghost crossed the road, Blood pheasant!! Two beautiful adults were calling from their own tree stumps. Senses satiated, I loudly wished that now I would like one on the snow; ten minutes later, lo and behold, there was one standing proudly on the snow! Snow Pigeons feeding by the road kept the record straight for a snow filled morning.
Trumshingla was covered in snow and in the midst of the pines on a stump we spotted a pair of Eurasian Sparrowhawks we stopped just in time to watch them mating. We stopped for breakfast on a patch on the road catching the sun. A flock of Rufous-fronted Tits enthralled us while we consumed our sandwiches. As we stopped for a flock of Coal Tits, we saw that the hunting party had treecrepers, flycatchers and goldcrests amongst them. Our morning of excitement continued as we stopped, hearing the call of Spotted Laughingthrushs. We saw the flock up close.
Nutcrackers by now were passé and even the newbie birder in the group was letting them pass. A White-winged Grosbeak got everybody excited. We made our way to Bhumtang, passing fields with scores of red billed Choughs and Black billed magpies. We spotted huge flocks of plain mountain finches in the air and on the ground and a flock of brown parrotbills before we checked into our hotel rooms at Jakar.
We started off towards Punakha and we had a long drive crossing two passes Yotongla(3400m) pass and Pelela (3325m) with warnings issued to limit our stops for birds. But you can’t stop birders from taking stops, can you? First it was the Parrotbill then accentors until we had our breakfast, and this breakfast didn’t prove any less exciting. White-browed Fulvettas, Yuhinas and a Darjeeling woodpecker showed up; a Mountain Hawk Eagle checked us out. The next stop threw up Mrs. Gould's Sunbird, Ultramarine Flycatcher, White-browed Shrike-babblers and the highlight of the day was the full display sequence and mating of a beautiful pair of Rufous-bellied Woodpeckers. It was quite late and dark as we drove into Punakha.
The promise of the White-bellied Heron and a hot breakfast drove us out of bed early. This critically endangered bird is on the brink of extinction with about 28 individuals in Bhutan which houses the largest population in the world. The Heron thankfully time kept its date flying to the bank of the river as we got to the spot; we watched the guy for a while as he strolled around, seemingly undecided if he wanted to fish or not. As we drove back, we stopped to see a very vocal Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babbler and a young Fish Eagle being mobbed by crows.
After a hot breakfast, we drove to the Lamperi Botanical garden where we were greeted by flocks of Brown Parrotbills, Yellowish Bush Warbler and Eurasian Jay. While walking thru the path some rustling in the litter made me retrace my steps to find a pair of the always heard and never seen Hill Partridge that were sitting hoping that I haven't seen them, but the moment I touched the lens they scooted. My heart hadn’t stopped pounding when we met a flock of very co-operative Parrotbills that have photographers gunning for them.
108 Stupas at Pele La
We had our lunch at a restaurant in Pele La Pass, the normally grand view obscured by the weather today, the 108 stupas though looked melancholy in the grey afternoon. We reached Paro with just enough time left for one location and we picked the Black-tailed Crake over the Ibisbill. The steep bumpy ride and walk thru sewage spillover resulted in a single sighting of the crake making a long dash. The place was literally buzzing even as the light was failing, Rusty-cheeked Scimiar babbler, Laughingthrushes, a surprise Golden-breasted Fulvetta flashing its gold and finally a Crimson-browed Finch pair to crown a wonderful birding tour.
We then drove to take a look at the impossibly perched 'Tigers Nest' contemplating a trek up there some day before returning to the Hotel. Elated we settle down for dinner discussing the whole trip as the realisation sets in that we were at the end of 13 days of faboulous birding, some members clocking 200+ lifers. Still excited we do say our goodbyes as some of us are taking early morning flight out of Paro.
As we complete our emigration formalities at the very pretty Paro airport I promise myself another trip to paradise.
Click here for Images from this trip
Bird list for the Trip
© Rajneesh Suvarna 2014