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Blessed with incredible mountain scenery, Bhutan is steeped in tradition and folklore while being extraordinarily rich in wildlife. There is now an excellent tourist infrastructure but do not expect to bump into many other westerners. It is the most forested area of the Himalayas and eastern Bhutan has been recognised as one of the top ten biodiversity hot spots in the world. Being a Buddhist country, hunting is illegal and consequently many species of bird and mammal are surprisingly tame. What is especially important, from a wildlife perspective, is that much of Bhutan’s land is protected in national parks.
Our journey takes us across this small country, through rural areas and crossing high passes topped with temples. In the past, the only way to see the best of Bhutan’s birds was to camp, but there are now new hotels and charming guesthouses. The route allows us to explore many different habitats, as well as visit spectacular dzongs (monasteries that doubled as forts and now serve as administration centres). The most impressive is the incredible Tiger’s Nest.
Four of the world’s most stunning pheasants can be seen from the roadside. Close views of Blood Pheasants and Satyr Tragopans are very likely, along with Himalayan Monal and Kalij Pheasant. We visit in April, which is the best month for birding, when the weather is generally good.
The high elevation broad-leaf and coniferous forests hold over a hundred species of rhododendron and many will be in flower along with large numbers of epiphytic orchids. Here we can expect to see some very special birds such as the sought-after Ward’s Trogon, Rufous-necked Hornbill and Fire-tailed Myzornis. Bhutan’s mammal list is outstanding. We saw twenty species of mammal on one trip, including River Otter, Giant Red Flying Squirrel, Giant Malay Squirrel, several species of monkey, Yellow-throated Marten, Pika, Sambar and Goral, a kind of antelope-goat. We have seen Red Panda droppings, so our first sighting is not far away!
Tourism is strictly regulated and the high daily tariff deters the more casual visitor. Much of the money is ploughed back into infrastructure for the preservation of the traditional way of life and natural landscape. This has led to Bhutan leading the world in Gross National Happiness.
PARO AND DOCHOLA
We will arrive at Paro Airport, where Ibisbill, Brown Dipper and Wallcreeper are just minutes away. The next morning we will visit Tiger’s Nest Monastery where the early morning mist burns off to reveal possibly the most impressive cultural site in the Himalayas. The surrounding woods are home to Collared Owlet, Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush and Chestnut-headed Tesia.
Meltwater from the Himalayas feeds rivers that hold Plumbeous and White-capped Water Redstarts, Ruddy Shelduck, Russet Sparrow and River Lapwing. The elusive Black-tailed Crake lives in small paddies where Rosy Pipits feed. Following two nights at Paro, we set off on our great journey east, proceeding first to Dochola for a night. The view of the Himalayas here can be breathtaking at dawn. Birding around the temples should produce Fire-tailed Myzornis and Fire-capped Tit.
We will spend two nights in the beautiful Puna Tsang Chhu Valley at Punakha where we will try to see our first trogon species, the beautiful Red-headed Trogon. Other birds should include Ultramarine, Sapphire and Verditer Flycatchers. The valley is home to the critically endangered White-bellied Heron, which may number as few as 50 birds. We have managed a sighting on every trip! They feed in the Mo River where Ibisbill and Crested Kingfisher are also found. In the evening, it is possible to hear and maybe see Grey Nightjar and Mountain Scops Owl.
PHOBJIKA AND TRONGSA
We will then drive over Pelela Pass at 11,000 feet and follow the edge of the Black Mountains, where we may see our first Yaks. An extensive marsh in the Phobjika Valley could yield Black-necked Crane and Hen Harrier. At this underwatched site almost anything is possible; last year we found Bhutan’s first Pallid Harrier.
An early start the next day takes us to a high pass in search of pheasants. The incomparable Satyr Tragopan is undoubtedly the star, their calls echoing in the morning air. The hairs on your neck stand up when a fiery red male walks towards you through twisted rhododendron roots. Dark-breasted and Beautiful Rosefinches sip nectar from flowering rhododendrons, while Red-headed Bullfinches accompany White-winged Grosbeaks along the path.
Continuing to Trongsa, we will watch for Golden Langur, a near endemic monkey. Waves of fulvettas, minlas, warblers and flycatchers pass through the bamboo. Our hotel here overlooks the impressive Trongsa Dzong.
THE BUMTHANG AND URA VALLEYS
From Trongsa we will climb out of the valley, through the Yotongla Pass and on to Yongkhola. Because the area is so rich with birds, we do this over three days looking for one of the region’s most prized birds, Himalayan Monal. Blood Pheasants are common along the road in the mornings and Nutcrackers, White-collared Blackbirds and Blue-capped Rock Thrush perch high in the trees. Rocky crags are dotted with Snow Pigeons and nest-building Nepal House Martins, while Himalayan Griffons scan the Yak meadows. Around Chummey, there are traditional water-powered prayer wheels where Golden-billed Blue Magpies come to drink.
We then enter the Bumthang Valley, famous for its many temples, stupas and dzongs. The surrounding hills, woods and streams provide a home for Yellow-bellied Fantail, and Rufous-gorgeted and Snowy-browed Flycatchers. Blue-bearded Bee-eater and Yellow-rumped Honeyguide sit by the large Rock Bee colonies. We spend one night at a simple family guesthouse by a temple at Ura which is a highlight for many as we get to see Bhutan at its most charming. Rufous-breasted Accentors and Oriental Turtle Doves are garden birds here and Red-billed Choughs call from the rooftops.
YONGKHOLA AND MONGAR
We then continue south and east to the Upper Yongkhola Valley in the Thrumshingla National Park, where we will stay for two nights. Capped Langur, Giant Red Flying Squirrel and Red Panda can be found in this area. This is a great place to find Ward’s Trogon, Rufous-necked Hornbill, White-browed Shrike-Babbler, Long-tailed Broadbill, Red-faced Liocichla, Scarlet Finch, Barred Cuckoo-dove and Mrs Gould’s Sunbird.
TRASHIGANG TO SAMDRUPJONKHAR
The last part of our tour is in the lower elevation forests close to the Indian border, staying one night at Trashigang and two nights at Samdrupjonkhar. We will be hoping to find Streak-breasted Scimitar-babbler and one of the many parrotbills that hide in the bamboo. This will be the last time that the Large Hawk-Cuckoo will wake us with its “brain-fever” call or a Tickell’s Leaf Warbler distracts us from breakfast.
Finally, after many wonderful experiences in Bhutan, it is a short drive from Samdrupjonkhar to Guwahati, for our flight home.
Early to rise and early to bed are the norm in Bhutan and this fits in well with the best birding times. We will generally make early starts and travel in the middle of the day. There is some uphill walking, done at a sensible pace. The long walk up to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery has many steps, but this is entirely optional. We do drive over some high mountain passes and but most of the birding is done where the altitude is below 8000 feet.
ACCOMMODATION AND FOOD
Full-board accommodation is provided. We have two nights at the Janka Resort, Paro, one night at the Dochola Hotel, two nights near Punakha, one night at Phobjika, one night at the Yangkhil Resort, Trongsa, two nights at Chummey Nature Resort, one night at the Ura Guesthouse, two nights at Yongkhola, one night at Mongar, one night at Druk Doejung Resort, Trashigang, and two nights at Trashi Gatshel Resort, Samdrupjonkhar. All accommodation has private facilities en suite, except at Ura, which is quite basic and has shared bathrooms. Most breakfasts and lunches are provided in the field by our team of cooks.
PRICE INCLUDES …..
All birdwatching excursions with expert leader and local guide, full-board accommodation (starting with dinner on 6th, ending with lunch on 22nd), soft drinks at meal times, local transport by mini-coach, park entrance fees, Bhutan visa, international flights and airport taxes.
WHAT IS NOT INCLUDED
Travel insurance. Cost of obtaining an Indian visa (approx. £90). Items of a personal nature, alcoholic drinks, laundry.
Return flights from London Heathrow to Delhi using the scheduled services of British Airways, then to Paro using Druk Air. Return flight is with British Airways from Guwahati (via Delhi). Outbound flight departs mid-evening, return flight arrives back early morning. Domestic flights from Manchester and other UK airports are available on this tour. See booking form for details.
Ibisbill can be found on most rivers, this one was by the airport!
this Black-tailed Crake was in the paddyfields by our hotel
Blood Pheasants are the most stunning of roadside birds
Rufous Sibia is a common bird of bushes and forest
Himalayan Monal is a much sought after bird. We saw several stunning males on our 2013 tour
Red-flanked Bluetail occurs on the high passes
parties of Fire-tailed Myzornis feed by roadside shrines
Ward's Trogon is high on the list of desirable birds and so far, we have never failed to find them
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