BHUTAN BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Bhutan: Day 1 Our Bhutan birding tour starts around midday at Guwahati, the capital of the northeastern Indian state of Assam, where we will spend our first night. Later this afternoon we will have an introduction to the birds of the Assam Plain and in particular we will be wanting to see the huge and ugly Greater Adjutant (now a critically endangered species, but still easy around Guwahati).
(If you are arranging your international flights to and from the tour and would find it more convenient, we will be pleased to arrange your internal flight to Guwahati on request.)
Bhutan: Day 2 This morning we will cross the mighty Brahmaputra River and drive across the plains of Assam towards the Bhutan border.
Many plains species will be seen today as we make stops at wetlands, paddy fields and other interesting spots. Birds we should see today include Little Cormorant, Indian Pond and Purple Herons, Eastern Cattle, Great, Intermediate and Little Egrets, Asian Openbill, Lesser Adjutant, Lesser Whistling Duck, Black Kite, White-rumped Vulture and with luck the endangered Slender-billed Vulture, Shikra, Grey-headed Swamphen, Bronze-winged Jacana, Red-wattled Lapwing, Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Asian Palm Swift, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Indochinese Roller, Common, White-throated and Stork-billed Kingfishers, Richard’s and Paddyfield Pipits, Zitting Cisticola, Striated Grassbird, Black-hooded Oriole, Black Drongo, Ashy Wood Swallow, Asian Pied Starling, Common and Jungle Mynas, House Crow and Eastern Jungle Crow.
Eventually, we will cross the frontier into Bhutan and spend the night at the border town of Gelephu (or Gelephug).
Bhutan: Day 3 Quite remarkably, the Bhutanese side of the border is still partly forested from lower altitudes upwards, so we shall be able to enjoy some lower foothill forest birding this morning.
As we explore the hills that hang in the pre-monsoon haze above the Assamese plains, we will look in particular for the restricted-range Dark-rumped Swift.
Other species likely this morning, most of which we are not likely to encounter elsewhere on our Bhutanese journey, include Indian Peafowl, Red Junglefowl, Thick-billed Green Pigeon, Green and Mountain Imperial Pigeons, Plaintive and Banded Bay Cuckoos, Asian Koel, Green-billed Malkoha, Alexandrine and Red-breasted Parakeets, Oriental Dollarbird, Wreathed, Great and Oriental Pied Hornbills, Lineated, Coppersmith and Blue-eared Barbets, Speckled Piculet, Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, Large Cuckooshrike, Large Woodshrike, Common Iora, Golden-fronted Leafbird, Asian Fairy-Bluebird, Black-crested and Red-whiskered Bulbuls, Cinereous Tit, Pin-striped Tit-Babbler, Black-naped Monarch, Rufescent Prinia, Common Tailorbird, White-rumped Shama, Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrush, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Great Myna, Common Hill Myna, Black-backed Forktail, Crimson Sunbird and Eurasian Tree Sparrow.
We are very likely to hear the secretive Grey Peacock-Pheasant this morning, but seeing one is another matter as access into the habitat is difficult and they are exceptionally wary. Blue-naped Pitta may also be recorded, but again is more often heard than seen in this area.
This afternoon we will ‘head for the hills’ as we climb into the interior of Bhutan on our way to our first fabulous birding area, the famous Tingtibi region, where we will stay for four nights in our comfortable mobile-safari-style camp complete with walk-in tents, proper camp beds, flush toilets and even hot showers!
Bhutan: Days 4-6 Some magnificent subtropical forests can still be found by the roadsides in the Tingtibi region, which still remains an ornithologically little-known region of Bhutan, and these offer some of the best birding in the entire country.
The star attraction of this fine area is Beautiful Nuthatch, which survives here at one of its few known localities. We have a very good chance of encountering this mega-star amongst the taller trees, probably being first alerted by its remarkably loud call, although how long this habitat-sensitive species will continue to hang on here in the face of the steady clearance of Bhutan’s foothill forest is seriously open to question.
Many other great birds occur in this area, including the superb Rufous-necked and Blue-winged Laughingthrushes, and the lovely Red-faced Liocichla. We will also have our first opportunity to look for many of the special birds which are mentioned under the Lingmethang Road.
We should also encounter the magnificent Rufous-necked Hornbill and the beautiful Golden Langur monkey is relatively common here.
We also have our first opportunity to look for both the rare White-bellied Heron and for Chestnut-breasted Partridge, and there is also a slim chance of the localized and restricted-range Collared Treepie and also Green Cochoa in this superb area.
At a forested mountain pass, where the forest is rich with moss and orchids, and the bamboo forms a dense undergrowth below the evergreen broadleaf forest, the restricted-range Scarlet Finch and Brown Bullfinch can both be found.
Amongst the many other birds that we may well encounter in the area are Crested (or Oriental) Honey Buzzard, the magnificent Black Eagle, Common Emerald Dove, Bar-tailed Cuckoo-Dove, Pin-tailed Green Pigeon, the secretive but noisy Hodgson’s Hawk-Cuckoo, Indian and Violet Cuckoos, White-throated Needletail, Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Blue-throated Barbet, White-browed Piculet, Fulvous-breasted and Rufous Woodpeckers, the gorgeous Long-tailed Broadbill, Orange-bellied Leafbird, Common Green Magpie, Scarlet Minivet, Red-vented, White-throated and Ashy Bulbuls, Bronzed Drongo, Long-tailed Shrike, Oriental Magpie-Robin, Blue Rock Thrush, Striated Prinia, Rufous-faced and Yellow-bellied Warblers, Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrush, White-browed Scimitar Babbler, Grey-throated Babbler, Long-tailed Sibia, Silver-eared Mesia, Striated Yuhina, the impressive Sultan Tit, Streaked Spiderhunter and Crested Bunting.
Bhutan: Day 7 We have a long drive today, first northwards along the Zhemgang (or Shemgang) Road to Trongsa (or Tongsa) and then we head eastwards. From the Yutong La at 3400m (in the Dzongkha language that is spoken in Bhutan, ‘la’ is the word for a high pass), we drop down into the series of dry, pine-forested valleys known as Bumthang until we reach Jakar where we stay overnight at a beautiful wooden guesthouse.
We will have our first opportunity to look for Yellow-rumped Honeyguide along our route today, while around Jakar we are likely to encounter Ruddy Shelduck.
Bhutan: Day 8 Today we will arrive at the second highest pass of our journey, the Thrumsing La, which, although situated at 3700m, is still shrouded in thick hemlock and rhododendron forest. A very high treeline (around 4000m) is a feature of the Eastern Himalayas, a consequence of the monsoons that come up from the Bay of Bengal and bestow a large amount of rainfall on these mountains.
The pass is frequented by some high-altitude birds such as the beautiful Blood Pheasant, the strikingly-patterned Snow Pigeon, Spotted Laughingthrush, Goldcrest, Golden Bush Robin, Rufous-vented Tit and Himalayan Beautiful Rosefinch. Migrant Tickell’s Leaf Warblers may also be encountered. We also have a good chance for the fantastic little Fire-tailed Myzornis, either here or at one of the other high passes along our route.
As we descend we can see forested ridges stretching away as far as the eye can see. Immediately below us will be a forested mountainside, so steep that if it was not for the fact that a narrow road winds its way down it, by means of numerous hairpin bends, it would be inaccessible to all but the hardiest and most agile of adventurers. This is the area that has been dubbed the ‘Lingmethang Road’ by the few lucky ornithologists to have reached this Shangri-la of Himalayan birding.
As there is no conventional accommodation in the area, we will stay in comfortable mobile-safari-style camps erected by our local outfitters along the road for the next six nights, spending three nights in the upper levels and three nights much lower down.
Bhutan: Days 9-13 The ‘Lingmethang Road’ bisects every forest altitudinal zone between 3700m and the valley bottom at 650m, an incredible drop of 3050m in just 79 kilometres! Very few birdwatchers can say they have visited this remote area and yet it holds some of the most sought-after Himalayan species. The Eastern Himalayas are the most diverse part of that mighty mountain range, and their steep profile means that from the plains to the highest peaks the distance can be as little as 80 kilometres in places! The list of birds here is large and diverse, and our tally will include many species characteristic of the Eastern Himalayas. We shall, however, be concentrating on a number of prime specialities.
The calls of Ward’s Trogon, a montane species entirely restricted to the Eastern Himalayas, are soft but quite far-carrying and we are likely to hear this wonderful bird before a vision of pink heralds the arrival of a male in a nearby forest giant. Rufous-necked Hornbills still survive here and can be seen slowly flapping their way along the ridges, or perched in the top of a tall tree.
Another star attraction is the stunning but secretive Satyr Tragopan, which is not uncommon here. We will listen for their rather braying calls, and persistence will likely be rewarded by views of a glowing red male, covered in white spots, stalking across a bamboo-choked hillside, with the drab female quietly feeding nearby. Sometimes they seem quite unconcerned by human beings, even emerging onto the roadside verges.
The skulking Blue-fronted Robin is easily heard but hard to get good views of as it flits from one perch to another amongst the undergrowth. Rather easier are the noisy bands of Yellow-throated Fulvettas and Grey-cheeked Warblers that are a conspicuous part of the avifauna in the lower levels. The large Rufous-headed Parrotbill tends to go around in noisy groups, often keeping company with Rusty-fronted Barwings, while other bird waves often contain smart White-naped Yuhinas.
As always, wren-babblers are a delight to watch and we will enjoy seeing Rufous-throated Wren-Babblers bobbing up and down and, if we are fortunate, Long-billed or Bar-winged Wren-Babblers, or the strange Sikkim Wedge-billed Babbler, singing away in a roadside ravine. Coral-billed Scimitar Babblers like to hack away at wild bananas in search of insects, but the amazing Slender-billed Scimitar-Babbler clambers up and down creeper-infested tree trunks and tall bamboos, probing into the deepest crevices with its extraordinarily long and finely curved bill. Deep in the bamboos, Broad-billed Warblers call thinly, only occasionally venturing out onto the edge of the clump.
Other species include Crested Goshawk, Mountain Hawk Eagle, Large Hawk-Cuckoo, Common and Lesser Cuckoos, the dazzling Asian Emerald Cuckoo, Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo, Asian Barred Owlet, Red-headed Trogon, Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Crimson-breasted and Bay Woodpeckers, Oriental Skylark, Nepal House Martin, Grey-chinned Minivet, Striated Bulbul, Streak-breasted and Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babblers, Scaly-breasted and Pygmy Wren-Babblers, Golden Babbler, Black-throated Parrotbill, White-crested, Grey-sided and Scaly Laughingthrushes, the near-endemic Bhutan Laughingthrush, Red-billed Leiothrix, Himalayan Cutia, White-browed and Black-eared Shrike-babblers, Chestnut-tailed Minla, Black-chinned Yuhina, the stunning little Golden-breasted Fulvetta, Dark-sided, Little Pied, Blue-throated Blue, Pygmy and Pale Blue Flycatchers, the shy Sapphire Flycatcher, the secretive White-gorgeted Flycatcher, Large and Rufous-bellied Niltavas, Yellow-bellied Fantail, the minuscule Chestnut-headed and Grey-bellied Tesias, Brownish-flanked Bush Warbler, Hill Prinia, Mountain Tailorbird, Large-billed Leaf, Chestnut-crowned and Black-faced Warblers, White-browed and Lesser Shortwings, White-tailed Robin, Grey-winged Blackbird, Yellow-cheeked Tit, White-tailed Nuthatch, Sikkim (or Brown-throated) Treecreeper, Oriental White-eye, Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo, Yellow-breasted Greenfinch and Crimson-browed Finch.
If we are lucky we will find Black-headed Shrike-babbler or the dapper Gold-naped Finch.
Hill, Rufous-throated and Chestnut-breasted Partridges can regularly be heard calling from the hillsides, and with persistence, we should see at least one of these wary species.
We have even been fortunate enough to come across the sought-after Gould’s Shortwing in this fabulous area, pausing on its way to its breeding grounds above the treeline!
Bhutan: Day 14 After some last birding along the wonderful Lingmethang Road we will return to Jakar for an overnight stay at the same comfortable guesthouse.
Bhutan: Day 15 Continuing westwards, we shall explore the slopes of the Yutong La and Pele La (3300m) passes, where we will look for such high altitude species as Alpine Accentor, White-browed Bush Robin, Great and Brown Parrotbills, and even the furtive Fulvous Parrotbill. Other new birds along this section of our route may well include Speckled Woodpigeon, Rufous-bellied Woodpecker and Spotted Forktail.
Eventually, we travel through some lichen-festooned forest to Gangtey Gompa (monastery) for an overnight stay in the Phobjika valley.
Bhutan: Day 16 We will be up early today to look for Himalayan Wood Owl and in particular the rare, localized and much-wanted Wood Snipe, which displays here early in the morning.
This morning we leave Gangtey Gompa behind and continue westwards along what is known as the ‘Lateral Road’, the only highway that crosses Bhutan from west to east, to Punakha for a two nights stay at a traditionally decorated hotel perched high above the Puna Sang Chu valley..
Seemingly without a straight stretch anywhere in the country, it was only surfaced in the 1980s. Its hairpins traverse the steep south-facing valleys of the region, giving us spectacular views over the forested landscape. Along the way we will pass Wangdiphodrang Dzong, which sits above the Mo Chu river, guarding the crossing point.
During the journey, we shall keep a lookout for any roadside cliffs festooned with the nests of Giant Rock Bees. Here we shall hope to find the little-known Yellow-rumped Honeyguide as it sits quietly alongside the bees nests.
Other birds we could well see today include Himalayan Vulture, Bearded Vulture (or Lammergeier), Wedge-tailed Green Pigeon, Blyth’s Swift, Chestnut-bellied and Blue-capped Rock Thrushes, Indian Blue Robin, Hume’s and Grey-sided Bush Warblers, and Fire-tailed Sunbird.
Bhutan: Day 17 The small town of Punakha (1350m) was once the capital of this tiny nation that preserves its cultural and natural heritage so keenly and both the town and the twin rivers that flow past it are dominated by the Punakha Dzong, sited at the confluence of the channels.
From Punakha, we shall travel up the Mo Chu (or Tashitang) Valley to an excellent area of forest where our birding will be concentrated. Along the river and its tributary streams, we should find Great Cormorant, Crested Kingfisher and Slaty-backed Forktail.
Our major target today along the Mo Chu River is a true ‘mega-speciality’ of Bhutan, the very rare and little-known White-bellied Heron. We have a fairly good chance here (better than at Tingtibi), but access to the best stretch of the river is fairly limited. There is also a chance for the increasingly uncommon Pallas’s Fish Eagle.
We will see a wide selection of forest species today, but in particular, we will be looking out for the localized Yellow-vented Warbler, which is common in these mid-altitude forests, and the delightful Spotted Elachura (sole member of its family), which positively vibrates as it pours out its amazingly loud song from a low perch.
Other birds we could well encounter include Crested Serpent Eagle, Spotted Dove, Himalayan Cuckoo, Himalayan Swiftlet, House Swift, Great and Golden-throated Barbets, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Greater and Lesser Yellownapes, Maroon Oriole, Ashy and Hair-crested Drongos, Grey Treepie, Black-winged Cuckooshrike, Mountain Bulbul, Ultramarine, Verditer and Grey-headed Flycatchers, Small Niltava, Slaty-bellied Tesia, Blyth’s Leaf, Green-crowned and Grey-hooded Warblers, Black-throated Tit, Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch, Fire-breasted Flowerpecker and Black-throated Sunbird.
There will also be an excellent selection of babblers, which may well include Rufous-capped Babbler, Rufous-chinned Laughingthrush, Red-tailed and Blue-winged Minlas, Whiskered Yuhina and Nepal Fulvetta.
Along the river on the outskirts of town, we will have a first chance to find the splendid Ibisbill, while Slender-billed Oriole favours the nearby pine forest.
Bhutan: Day 18 This morning we will climb up to the high forests of the Dochu La. Where the road climbs to 3100m, rising above the dry, pine-dominated forests of western Bhutan, we enter stands of hemlock, fir, rhododendron and evergreen oak which we will want to explore. We will stop at the pass where, on a clear day, there is a spectacular, panoramic vista of the snowy massifs of the high Himalayas to the north.
Birding here will include some of the best ornithological delights of the Eastern Himalayas. In particular, we will be wanting to see the lovely but restless Fire-tailed Myzornis here (although we also have chances for this star bird further east, for example at Thrumsing La).
White-throated, Striated and Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrushes are likely to be prowling noisily through the undergrowth, while other species we may well encounter include Darjeeling Woodpecker, Rufous Sibia, Hoary-throated Barwing, Stripe-throated Yuhina, Rufous-winged Fulvettas, Lemon-rumped and Ashy-throated Warblers, Whistler’s Warbler, the diminutive, Phylloscopus-like Yellow-browed Tit, Rusty-flanked Treecreeper, Green-tailed Sunbird, Common Crossbill, Dark-breasted Rosefinch and Red-headed Bullfinch.
After birding at the Dochu La, we will continue past Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu (which sits in a broad valley at an altitude of 2350m), to Paro for a two nights stay.
This afternoon we will explore the Paro valley, dominated by the impressive Paro Dzong. In particular, we shall be looking out for the strange and beautiful Ibisbill, which can be found here amongst the gravel islands in the fast-flowing rivers, and the furtive Black-tailed Crake. We have sometimes found the sought-after Solitary Snipe in this area of Bhutan or elsewhere.
Typical breeding birds of the area include River Lapwing, Oriental Turtle Dove, Eurasian Hoopoe, Himalayan Black Bulbul, Grey-backed Shrike, Red-billed Chough, Large-billed Crow, Green-backed Tit, Brown Dipper, Plumbeous Water-Redstart, White-capped Redstart, Siberian Stonechat, Grey Bushchat, Blue Whistling Thrush, White Wagtail and Russet Sparrow, while lingering winter visitors may include Green Sandpiper, Rosy Pipit, Rufous-breasted Accentor, Hodgson’s Redstart and Black-throated Thrush.
Bhutan: Day 19 We will set off early today to drive up to the impressive Chele La pass on the road to Haa, which at a breath-taking 3780m (the highest point we reach during our journey) is an excellent spot for seeing the spectacular Himalayan Monal. This has to be one of the most colourful and strikingly patterned of all the world’s many pheasants, so that is saying a lot! Seeing an adult male at relatively close range as it shows off its iridescent blue, indigo, orange, green and black plumage is an extraordinary experience, and when one flies off displaying its white back patch and uttering its wild, ringing cry the moment seems to epitomize High Himalayan birding in all its glory!
During our visit to Chele La, we will have a good opportunity to find the attractive Blood Pheasant and also the smart Kalij Pheasant, as well as a good selection of other high mountain birds.
Other interesting species found here include Yellow-billed Blue Magpie, Grey Crested Tit, Rufous-fronted Bushtit, Black-faced Laughingthrush, White-browed Fulvetta, Rufous-vented Yuhina, Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher, Buff-barred and Greenish Warblers, Himalayan Bluetail, Blue-fronted Redstart, Long-tailed Thrush, White-collared Blackbird, Mrs Gould’s Sunbird, the huge Collared Grosbeak, White-winged Grosbeak and Himalayan White-browed and Dark-rumped Rosefinches.
More widespread birds include Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Grey Nightjar, Spotted Nutcracker, Long-tailed Minivet, Coal Tit and Olive-backed Pipit.
This evening we will enjoy a celebratory dinner to mark the end of the tour.
Bhutan: Day 20 Our Bhutan birding tour ends this morning at Paro airport.
(There are regular international connections from Paro to Delhi, Kathmandu and Bangkok. We will be pleased to arrange a flight ticket out of Paro for you on request.)