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A Partner Friendly Birding trip to Bhutan, 17 - to 31 May 2004
Chicken Chasers (Birders who had Red Jungle Fowl as a major target species) - John McAllister and Elize McAllister of Wakkerstroom, South Africa and Jo Johnson of Cape Town, South AfricaCulture Vultures (the Non-birding Partners) - Shirley and Lisa Johnson of Cape Town, South Africa
Planning and Logistics
Our initial planning started way back in early 2003 when Elize and I were looking for a reasonably affordable place to spend our Silver Wedding on 31st May 2004. Our first thoughts turned to Nome or Point Barrow in Alaska - icebergs after all seemed suitably silver in colour. This proved to be way too expensive, particularly with the weak South African Rand of the time.
Other thoughts included Svalbard off northern Norway and a cruise from Iceland to the Faeroe Islands and Denmark. These were likewise far above the limits set by our pockets. Our thoughts the turned to the southern hemisphere and we gave the Falkland Islands some serious consideration. Unfortunately May was a really bad month for here - the austral winter is just not a good time for these fascinating islands. The austral summer is our busiest time in South Africa so this was not a proposition either.
It took the visit of two Sri Lankan birders who were working in Mafikeng, South Africa, to our B&B in Wakkerstroom, to turn our thoughts to the East. This rekindled a boyhood dream of mine to one-day visit the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon - Bhutan).
The next step was to invite close friends Jo and Shirley Johnson from Cape Town and Dries and Julia Laubscher from Johannesburg to join us. In the event Jo and Shirley and their daughter Lisa joined us, but Dries and Julia were unable to do so.
Sure Travel in Newcastle and Fish Hoek were responsible for flight bookings from Johannesburg to Delhi, hotel accommodation and car hire in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and getting the necessary visas for the UAE and India. Nature Tourism-Bhutan organised visas for Bhutan and booked the flights from Dehi to Paro and back. Return flights from Johannesburg to Dehi were with Emirates with a 24-hour stopover in the UAE on the outward-bound flight. Flights from Delhi to Paro and back were with Druk Air, the Royal Bhutan Airline and the only airline to fly into Paro International Airport.
In Bhutan we followed a very well organised itinerary arranged especially for us by Nature Tourism-Bhutan. It was really two itineraries in one. The Chicken Chasers were very ably guided by Tshering and driven in a Toyota Hi Ace van by star driver Shatu. The Culture Vultures were guided by Karma himself and driven in a Musso 4-wheel drive vehicle by Dawa.
Books and maps
For Bhutan and India I bought A guide to the birds of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives by Grimmett, Inskipp and Inskipp as well as a road map for Bhutan from Amazon, but this is a very comprehensive book along the lines of Roberts Birds of Southern Africa. I have the same criticism of it as I have of the Middle East book - the distribution maps show breeding ranges only and the text and illustrations are in different parts of the book. There is a much lighter "field guide" version of the same book and this is adequate for normal use. Jo bought a copy of Birds of Bhutan by the same authors through a request he put out on UK Birdnet. I bought a copy in Thimphu for future use. It could probably be ordered through Nature Tourism-Bhutan. This is a very useful book for birders going to Bhutan only, but it has no distribution maps - only text describing in which Bhutanese provinces the birds have been recorded.
Accommodation and food
While accommodation establishments and restaurants in Bhutan are often somewhat frugal by western standards they were always adequate. Contrary to trip reports we had read, we found the accommodation very comfortable. In stark contrast to the comments in the Lonely Planet Guide we found the food in Bhutan very good indeed. If you do not like spicy food however it might be a bit bland when these are omitted from the cooking. Jo, Elize and particularly me enjoy spicy food and thoroughly enjoyed the different cuisine. My favourite dish was a concoction of bracken shoots, cheese and chillies. I even managed to eat cabbage and cauliflower - something I'd never dream of doing at home - when they were prepared with cheese and chillies. I never managed to follow Tshering's example and eat raw chillies with salt though. Butter tea was drinkable, but nothing to write home about. The tea was generally great if drunk black, but unfortunately the coffee was all of the instant variety. The camping on the Lingmethang road was a bit rough (smallish tent with a sleeping bag laid on two 'duvet' type things on the tent floor). Foodwise Leki and his camp crew excellently catered us for, however.
In both Bhutan and India all the accommodation establishments were extremely birder friendly. Everywhere there was staffs available to make and serve us breakfast at whatever time we wanted it - whether it was at 04:00 or 10:00. Nowhere were we told that breakfast is only served between certain hours only.
None of the accommodation on the entire trip was accessible to wheelchairs. Shirley had a bad fall at Gangtey Goempa and was unable to walk or get in and out of vehicles for the rest of the trip and if you are prepared to put up with the indignities of manhandling the guides and drivers managed this very well indeed. Showers and loos would pose problems though. The camps would be impossible for anyone with mobility problems.
Climate and Birding
While the trip was definitely a birding trip it was primarily organised as a celebration of our 25th Wedding Anniversary. This meant that we were limited to May/June, which was far from the ideal time of the year. India in particular was extremely hot and waiting desperately for the onset of the monsoon. The TV news consistently reported maximum daily temperatures of 450 C and over for the Gangetic plains (Delhi and Agra) with minimums in the low to mid 30s. In the higher altitudes of northern India and Bhutan the temperatures were quite pleasant with maximums in the high 20s for the most part. In Bhutan it rained most days and this disrupted the birding somewhat although we were able to get at least some in on each day. The high Himalayas were always under a heavy blanket of cloud so we got none of the views of the high mountains mentioned in the Lonely Planet Guide Book for Bhutan. On the return flight from Paro to Kathmandu, however, the weather cleared and we got wonderful views of Jhomolhari Bhutan's highest peak, and a whole range of peaks in Nepal including Kanchenjunga, Makalu and Everest itself. There was a load of other peaks whose names remained unknown to us.
Many Himalayan birds are altitudinal migrants and move up to around 5000 m during the summer months. Intra- and inter-continental migrants are for the most part winter or passage migrants to the area. The best time to visit the area appears to be during March-April with the winter months being a close second. Once the monsoon starts in mid-June I would imagine that many places become totally inaccessible. Corbett National Park is closed during this period. In spite of all this we still managed to see a total of 323 birds, which from the trip reports seems to be about par for the course for a three-week trip.
Contrary to what some trip reports and promotional material suggest we did not find the birds tame and easy to see - not by African standards at least. Many were super skulkers that were very vocal, but took a great deal of time and patience to see. The one exception was Keoladeo where the birds were indeed easy to see. This must be a wonderful birding spot at the right time of year and I look forward to returning sometime.
|Day No.||Date||Details||Daily tally (trip birds)|
|1||17/5||03:15 - Arrive Indira Gandhi International Airport, Delhi. After clearing Customs and Immigration we are met by Sibi and another driver from Asian Adventures. Go birding in Sanjay Van Park after an hour's drive through Old Delhi. 11:30 - Depart Indira Gandhi International Airport aboard Druk Air Flight KB 203 for Kathmandu, Nepal and Paro, Bhutan. 15:05 - Arrive Paro International Airport. After clearing Customs and Immigration we are met by Karma (MD and Cultural Guide), Tshering (Bird Guide) Shatu and Dawa (drivers) of Nature Tourism-Bhutan. Culture Vultures leave us and we do some local birding before leaving for Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan. Overnight River View Hotel, Thimphu|
|2||18/5||04:30 start. Birding at the summit of Dochu La (La is a mountain pass in Dzongkha, the official language of Bhutan) at around 3 140 m. Breakfast at Dochu La Café. Birding from Dochu La to Punakha for overnight stop. Overnight Meri Puensum Resort||62 (44)|
|3||19/5||After an early breakfast at the hotel we birded along the Mo Chhu (Chhu is river in Dzongkha) valley up to Tashithang and the Jigme Dorji National Park. Meri Puensum was burnt down while we were out birding so we had to change hotels when we got back. Tonight we were reunited with the Culture Vultures. Overnight Zangdho Pelri Hotel||62 (28)|
|4||20/5||Morning spent birding along the Mo Chhu valley again. Return to the hotel for lunch and spend the afternoon birding south of Wangdi Phodrang along the Puna Tsang Chhu valley as far as Kamichu. Overnight Zangdhopelri Hotel||64 (11)|
|5||21/5||Spend the day birding along the road past Wangdi Phodrang, up the Dang Chhu valley and across Lawa La (3 360 m) to Gangtey Goempa (Gangtey Monastery). Overnight Gangtey Goempa Guest House||68 (14)|
|6||22/5||Birding along the road to Trongsa crossing Pele La (3 420 m). Shirley had a bad fall at Gangtey and later proved to have a broken hip. Karma took her on to Trongsa we she was examined by a Doctor and referred to the hospital at Jakar for X-rays. Overnight Sherubling Lodge||44 (12)|
|7||23/5||Jo joined Shirley for the drive to Jakar. Elize and I had some early morning birding along the Trongsa-Shemgang road, returning to Trongsa for a late breakfast. Later birding along the road to Jakar and the Bumthang Valley. Cross Yutong La at 3 425 m. Shirley had been x-rayed at Jakar Hospital, but the X-rays picked up no fractures. She still could not walk so she and Lisa did not go on the three-day hike in the Bumthang Valley that had been planned for them. Overnight Mephang Guest House||62 (13)|
|8||24/5||Make an early start from Jakar, cross Sheltang La (3 590 m) into the Ura Valley and climb over Thrumsing La (3 750 m), past the village of Sengor. Overnight at a campsite on the Lingmethang road.||52 (10)|
|9||25/5||Birding mostly in the vicinity of our campsite. Overnight at a campsite on the Lingmethang road.||58 (15)|
|10||26/5||A.M. birding along the road above the campsite. Afternoon birding lower down at Yonkala. Overnight at a campsite on the Lingmethang road.||84 (9)|
|11||27/5||Birding along the long drive back to Jakar where we were reunited with Shirley and Lisa. Shirley was still unable to walk. Overnight Mepham Guest House||60 (11)|
|12||28/5||Today is essentially a cultural day visiting Kurjey Lhakang (Kurjey Temple), Jampa Lhakang and Jakar Dzong (Jakar Monastery-Fort) in the morning. Shirley and Lisa joined us for the drive back to Trongsa. Overnight Sherubling Lodge||24 (0)|
|13||29/5||Essentially a driving day as we take on the long and winding road to Thimphu. Shirley taken to the Thimphu Hospital where the x-rays showed a fractured femur. Tonight we had a farewell dinner with Karma, his wife Pema, Tshering and Shatu. Overnight River View Hotel||30 (1)|
|14||30/5||Morning spent at the Craft Market and Emporium in Thimphu followed by a visit to the Thimphu Zoo to see a Takin - Bhutan's national mammal. After many phone calls to and from the travel insurers - Discovery Heath and First National Bank - it was decided that Shirley and Lisa should stay in Thimphu from where they would be evacuated to Bangkok in Thailand for further medical examination. Later Jo, Elize and I drive to Paro and get views of Paro and Drukgyel Dzongs (the latter a ruin) and Taktshang Goempa or Tiger's Nest Monastery. Visit Kyichu Lhakang. Overnight Rinchen Ling Lodge||10 (0)|
|15||31/5||07:30 - Depart Paro for Kathmandu and Delhi. Met at Delhi by Asian Adventures representatives and driven to Agra. Paid a late afternoon visit to the Taj Mahal and a marble craft shop. Overnight Jaypee Palace Hotel||22 (2)|
It was with a modicum of relief that we heard that the flight was indeed happening. Paro Airport is a fair weather airport and the aircraft only land if they have visual contact with the landing strip. Delays of a few days can happen simply because there's too much mist at Paro. My heart was in my mouth when the Druk Air agent at Delhi refused to allow us to board the plane unless we had the visa authorisation numbers from Immigration in Bhutan. I phoned Thimphu and fortunately Karma was in his office. He was most surprised that this had happened as the visas had been issued and were waiting for us at Paro airport, as is the normal custom. Anyway he had the required numbers with him and we were able to satisfy the man at the Druk Air desk. To this day we don't know whether the Bhutanese Immigration Policy had been changed or whether the man was just being ultra-cautious.
We managed to get window seats on the left side of the aircraft where we should have great views of the Himalayas, including Everest. Alas this was not to be - the high Himalayas were under a thick blanket of cloud. Fortunately the ground below us was open and we were able to land on time at Paro International Airport.
You knew you were in a place that time had passed by when you looked over to the landing strip to what looked like a Dzong and suddenly realised that this was the Airport Terminal Building. This knowledge was reinforced when, after clearing Customs and Immigration, we met Karma, Tshering, Shatu (who was promptly nicknamed Schatzi because of his endearing personality and diminutive size) and Dawa. After the usual welcome we were told that Thimphu, the Bhutanese capital, was 57 km away and it would take us two hours to drive there!
Karma and Dawa whisked off the Culture Vultures while we started birding almost immediately along the banks of the Paro Chhu. Our exhausted spirits were given a tremendous boost when among the first birds that we saw were RIVER LAPWING and the almost mythical IBISBILL. Other interesting birds that we saw before leaving Paro included ORIENTAL TURTLE DOVE, GREY-BACKED SHRIKE, RED-BILLED CHOUGH, LARGE-BILLED CROW, PLUMBEOUS WATER REDSTART, BLACK BULBUL and RUSSET SPARROW. We heard, but could not see, Black-tailed Crake skulking in a small reedbed. Jo complained of chest pains here while looking for the crake, but insisted that there was nothing wrong and that it was something he experienced quite frequently. By the time we got to Thimphu we had added BLUE WHISTLING THRUSH, WHITE-COLLARED BLACKBIRD and WHITE-THROATED LAUGHING THRUSH to our fast-growing list of trip birds. Our overnight stop was in the River View Hotel overlooking Thimphu. After a lovely meal we all retired rather rapidly to bed for some much needed sleep. While we liked the firm beds in Bhutan the pillows were rather too firm and were quite uncomfortable in most cases.
We met for tea and biscuits in the hotel foyer at 04:00. The intention was to be at the summit of Dochu La around dawn.
Jo was not feeling at all well and as we climbed up the pass he became progressively worse and his eyes became very bloodshot. Tshering felt that it was altitude related and that he would improve as we descended the other side of the pass. At the summit he and Schatzi stayed with the vehicle while Tshering, Elize and I went of for a walk into the forest.
Our first walk was of necessity slow as the altitude (3 140 m) was also having its effect on us. I was distinctly drowsy, short of breath and developed a slight headache. These symptoms disappeared if I stopped every now and again and pretended to be searching intently for a bird in the shrubbery. The forest was truly beautiful. The rhododendrons were unfortunately nearly over, but the bit that was left gave an idea of how magnificent it must be with everything in flower. Our first forest birding experience was initially a bit disheartening. Tshering continually pointed out invisible birds in the forest. Finally we did get to see a bird, and another and another. Our eyes adapted somewhat to forest birding and we decided that Tshering was not really Dzongkha for "stringer" - there REALLY were plenty of birds in the forest. One problem of course was that all the warblers were green and most of the smaller ground dwellers like wren-babblers, etc. were dark brown. We retuned to the vehicle to find Jo no better than before. Tshering still felt that his condition was altitude related and that it would improve as we descended the pass towards Punakha. We decided to continue with the original 'game plan' and had breakfast at the small restaurant at Dochu La summit. After a very tasty breakfast (I had my first taste of butter tea and decided it did not matter greatly if I never tasted it again) we started our descent of the pass, birding on the way.
Jo did indeed perk up a bit as we descended the pass, but was still not well and became quite unsteady on his feet. We stopped at a local clinic. The medic at the clinic was also of the opinion that his discomfort was altitude related and gave him some tablet, which he said would temporarily give Jo some relief. He also telephoned the hospital at Punakha and warned them that we would be coming in to them as soon as we arrived in the town. In the event the doctor at the hospital concurred with the medic - that Jo's blood pressure had 'gone through the roof' and that it was probably a combination of the sudden altitudinal changes combined with physical exhaustion as a result of the long flight from South Africa.
After our visit to the hospital we checked in to our overnight accommodation at the beautifully situated Meri Puensum Resort. Our rooms were in stand alone cottages downhill from the main building.
All in all we saw a total of 51 birds on our walk and on the pass. The most interesting of these were KALIJ PHEASANT, SPOTTED DOVE, BLACK EAGLE, LONG-TAILED SHRIKE, GREY TREEPIE, SPOTTED NUTCRACKER, BLACK-WINGED CUCKOOSHRIKE, LONG-TAILED MINIVET, SCARLET MINIVET, ASHY DRONGO, CHESTNUT-BELLIED ROCK-THRUSH, BLUE-CAPPED ROCK-THRUSH, RUFOUS-GORGETED FLYCATCHER, VERDITER FLYCATCHER, PALE BLUE FLYCATCHER, CHESTNUT-TAILED STARLING, CHESTNUT-BELLIED NUTHATCH, FIRE-CAPPED TIT, GREEN-BACKED TIT, YELLOW-BROWED TIT, BLACK-THROATED TIT, MOUNTAIN BULBUL, HILL PRINIA, ORIENTAL WHITE-EYE, ASHY-THROATED WARBLER, GREENISH WARBLER, LARGE-BILLED LEAF-WARBLER, WHISTLER'S WARBLER, GREY-HOODED WARBLER, BLACK-FACED LAUGHINGTHRUSH, CHESTNUT-CROWNED LAUGHINGTHRUSH, WHITE-BROWED FULVETTA, STRIPE-THROATED YUHINA, RUFOUS-VENTED YUHINA, BLACK-CHINNED YUHINA, RUFOUS SIBIA, FIRE-BREASTED FLOWERPECKER, GREEN-TAILED SUNBIRD and WHITE-WINGED GROSBEAK. In the forests of Dochu La we also saw our first Himalayan Striped Squirrel.
On approaching Punakha we good scope views of two BLACK-TAILED CRAKES in the paddy fields at Metshina near the turnoff to Punakha. From a viewpoint overlooking the Puna Tsang Chhu we had good views of two very late RUDDY SHELDUCK and some magnificent WHITE-THROATED KINFISHERS. We also got some more great looks at River Lapwing and Ibisbill.
The day was spent birding in the Mo Chhu valley along the road from Punakha to Tashitang. On the way we picked up Ram, a Forest Guard and friend of Tshering's. Ram had a wonderful knowledge of the plants in the forest and we thoroughly enjoyed his company. The road passed through some very beautiful scenery along the banks of the fast-flowing Mo Chhu. The river has apparently been classified as a Class A1 rafting river.
We saw a total of 62 bird species today. Of these three are considered to be globally threatened - the Endangered WHITE-BELLIED HERON (Bhutan's most threatened species) and the Near Threatened TAWNY FISH-OWL and YELLOW-VENTED WARBLER. It was a real tossup between White-bellied Heron or Tawny Fish Owl for bird of the day. It was only the second time that Tshering had seen this bird while on a birding trip and only the thirds time ever so he was of course very excited about this. On the basis of its rarity though I guess the honours really have to go to the heron, although I must confess the owl won hands down on charisma. Other lifers included LESSER YELLOW-NAPE, GREAT BARBET, GOLDEN THROATED BARBET, BLUE-THROATED BARBET, COMMON KINGFISHER, CRESTED KINGFISHER, LESSER CUCKOO, HIMALAYAN SWIFTLET, WERDGE-TAILED PIGEON, ORANGE-BELLIED LEAFBIRD, SLENDER-BILLED ORIOLE, MAROON ORIOLE, SMALL NILTAVA, SLATY-BACKED FORKTAIL, HILL MYNA, WHITE-TAILED NUTHATCH, SLATY-BELLIED TESIA, STRIATED LAUGHINGTHRUSH, RUSTY-CHEEKED SCIMITAR-BABBLER, NEPAL FULVETTA, WHISKERED YUHINA, BLACK-THROATED SUNBIRD and EURASIAN TREE SPARROW. Today was also the first time that we saw ASSAMESE MACAQUES on the trip.
On returning to Punakha we found that the main building of the Meri Puensum Resort had burnt down during the day. The Culture Vultures had in the meantime arrived in Punakha and Karma had already made alternative arrangements for us at the nearby Zangdho Pelri Hotel.
After an early breakfast at the hotel we got underway at around 05:30. Tshering had a few arrangements to make at the hotel so the three of us started walking down the road towards Punakha. Our first new bird for the day was GREATER COUCAL, seen along the roadside here.
On the outskirts of Punakha a local traffic policeman pulled us off the road. The road was lined by schoolchildren who were soon joined by adults approaching from all directions. The main monastic body has its winter headquarters at Punakha Dzong and we had come across their annual trek to the summer headquarters at Thimphu. We were treated to close up views of the procession, which included the Je Kenpho, the religious head of Bhutan. Only the Je Kenpho and the King, the secular head of Bhutan, are permitted to wear yellow kabneys (scarves).
The morning was spent birding along the Mo Chhu valley again. We headed back to the area where we had seen the White-bellied Heron, but no sign of it this morning. Jo, however, did find the Tawny Fish-Owl roosting in a tree on the opposite riverbank. While we were still admiring the owl in the scope the Musso with the Culture Vultures made an appearance and they soon joined us on. The owl was a lifer for Karma, another indication of how lucky (skilful?) we were to find this bird on two successive days. Karma soon revealed the true reason for joining us. He had been to the Punakha Hospital to find out more about their diagnosis of Jo's problems. The doctor there stated that Jo should have at least one day's absolute rest before we continued on our journey and Karma had come to collect him and take him back to the hotel by force if need be. Jo surprised us all by leaving quietly with Karma who took him back to the Zangdho Pelri. Life birds for the morning were BAY WOODPECKER, MOUNTAIN HAWK EAGLE, GREY-CHINNED MINIVET, CROW-BILLED DRONGO, BLUE-THROATED FLYCATCHER, SCALY-BREASTED MUNIA (me only as Elize could not get onto them before they disappeared) and CRESTED BUNTING. Today was also the first time that we saw the very attractive CAPPED LANGUR or Capped Leaf Monkey.
We returned to the hotel for lunch and took an afternoon trip along the road leading south past Wangdue Phodrang. We drove past the construction site for the Basochhu hydroelectric project and carried on for a while towards Kamichu. Our target species here was Greta Hornbill. Tshering knew of a roosting site fro these birds, but unfortunately we did not find them this afternoon. Life birds for the afternoon were HOUSE SWIFT (a possible split - Apus nipalensis - from our Little Swift) and SPOT-WINGED STARLING. Tshering was quite excited about these birds as, while he had seen them here before, they were listed in Birds of Bhutan as 'rare' and only recorded from Tashigang Province in the far east of Bhutan. We returned to Punakha for another overnight stop at the very comfortable Zangdho Pelri Hotel.
Jo joined us for an early breakfast. He was feeling and looking much better after the forced rest yesterday and we set off at around 06:00. Our first stop was 21 km later at Wangdue Phodrang, the nearest filling station to Punakha.
From here we made our way up the Dang Chhu valley to Nobding and the Gaden Tashiding Restaurant for lunch.
At first the habitat was quite different to what we hand been in over the last few days. The hillsides here were comparatively sparsely covered with smallish shrubs and open grassy areas. Here we saw our first BAR-WINGED FLYCATCHER-SHRIKE of the trip. Soon the vegetation became denser however and we made several stops, birding from the roadside. At one of these we stopped at the base of a high cliff where Tshering pointed out some very large beehives on the cliff face.
"Check all the shrubs and bushes in the area" he told us.
We scanned all the likely looking shrubs and suddenly there was a slight movement and a flash of yellow in one of the cliff-side shrubs. "Got it" I yelled. "YELLOW-RUMPED HONEYGUIDE." We saw a total of 59 species of birds along the roadside on the long climb out of the Dang Chhu valley. Other life birds see along this stretch of road included FORK-TAILED SWIFT, YELLOW-BILLED BLUE MAGPIE, WHITE-THROATED FANTAIL, WHITE-CAPPED WATER REDSTART, STRIATED BULBUL, LEMONRUMPED WARBLER, BLYTH'S LEAF-WARBLER and CHESTNUT-CROWNED WARBLER.
After lunch we continued over Lawa La to Gangtey Goempa and our overnight stop at Gangtey Goempa Guest House where we were reunited with the Culture Vultures. It rained on and off all day and we arrived at Gangtey in quite heavy rain. At the turn-off to Gangtey and the Pobjika Valley we saw our first OLIVE-BACKED PIPIT and DARK-SIDED FLYCATCHER. In the forest from the turn-off to the Lawa La summit we saw a total of seven birds before rain stopped play for the day.
After another early start we were birding in the wide expanse of dwarf bamboo between Gangtey Goempa and Lawa La. The antennae-eared Tshering told Schatzi stop. He had heard BROWNISH-FLANKED BUSH-WARBLER calling in the roadside shrubbery. Over an hour later and several brief glimpses of a small brownish bird darting around a few centimetres off the ground in the dense shrubbery, calling loudly all the time, we decide that this was as good a view as we were going to get.
The next bird heard was HIMALAYAN MONAL. Suddenly a single bird rose out of the dwarf bamboo on whirring wings and flew over to a lone roadside conifer. This large bird was surprisingly well hidden in the topmost branches of the tree and we only got views of small, but very colourful, parts of the bird. Suddenly it decided to fly again and we were treated to magnificent flight views of this magnificent bird.
Tshering spotted a GREY-SIDED BUSH-WARBLER flying low and fast over the bamboo before disappearing again. After staring at the patch of bamboo described by him the bird did another flight for us. As with the Brownish-flanked Bush-warbler we would have liked a better view, but decided that this was probably as good a view as we were going to get given the time constraints imposed by a birding trip. Other life birds that we saw in the dwarf bamboo included DUSKY WARBLER and GOLDEN-SPECTACLED WARBLER.
It was while looking at the Grey-sided Bush-Warbler that the Culture Vultures caught up with us and stopped at the roadside. Shirley had taken a step backwards while talking to an American fellow-guest at Gangtey and had fallen off the step at the entrance to the guesthouse. She was unable to walk and had to be carried into the vehicle. Karma thought that it may well be a bad bruise or sprained muscle and was going to take her straight through to our next stop at Trongsa where there was a doctor who could examine her. We would meet up with them there later in the day.
After crossing Lawa La we were back in coniferous forest again. On a short walk through the forest we found many more Dark-sided Flycatchers, Olive-backed Pipits with their heavily streaked underparts and colourful Collared Grosbeaks. Among the many Green-tailed Sunbirds there was a single MRS GOULD'S SUNBIRD. Other lifers here included RED-TAILED MINLA, COMMON ROSEFINCH and RED-HEADED BULLFINCH. On the way up to the summit of Pele La we saw a flock of NEPAL HOUSE MARTINS.
Below Pele La we searched a dense stand of bamboo for Parrotbills. We good views of GREAT PARROTBILL and STREAKED LAUGHINGTHRUSH, but Brown Parrotbill eluded us for the moment. After lunch at Tshering's Restaurant (nothing to do with our guide) at Sephu the rain set in once more putting a virtual end to the day's birding. We drove straight through to Trongsa where we joined up with the Culture Vultures once again at the Sherubling Lodge. When we arrived the Bhutanese doctor and her nurse were examining Shirley. It was decided that she should go through to the Bumthang Hospital near Jakar for X-rays the following day.
The total number of bird species for the day was a humble 44 species, but taking into account that all of these were seen during the course of the morning this was probably not too bad a total.
This evening we had our first taste of Bhutanese whisky. Even for one of Scottish descent I have to admit that Special Courier was not a bad whisky at all!
Jo decided that he wanted to go with Shirley and Lisa to the Bumthang Hospital today so Elize, Tshering and I transferred to the 'culture mobile' with Dawa as our driver for the day. We initially headed south of Trongsa along the road to Zhemgang and the south. We drove south until we reached a waterfall and some high cliffs with a group of beehives - another site for the Near Threatened Yellow-rumped Honeyguide. We saw two birds high up on the cliff near the beehives. We also spent a lot of time trying to lure a PYGMY WREN_BABBLER into view. Eventually I got a brief view of a small dark brown bird calling incessantly in the dark brown undergrowth. While I would have liked a better view I decided to settle for this rather than spend an inordinate amount of time searching for the bird. There was a very high probability that I would not get a better view in any event. We later had a similar experience with a SPOTTED WREN-BABBLER - another Near Threatened species. Other life birds seen on this excursion were RUFOUS-VENTED TIT, YELLOW-BREASTED GREENFINCH, the immaculate GREY-WINGED BLACKBIRD and the equally elegant SPOTTED FORKTAIL. Elize, Tshering and Dawa also saw a YELLOW-THROATED MARTEN come to drink at the stream while I was away in the forest having an "Imodium Moment".
We returned to Sherubling Lodge for a late breakfast, before crossing the 3 425 m high Yutong La. In the forests above Trongsa we found RED-BILLED LEIOTHRIX and CHESTNUT-TAILED MINLA.
From Yutong La we entered the Bumthang District and descended into the Chume Valley. Here we had our first Black-billed Magpie. In Bhutan these birds are only found in Bumthang and are sometimes known locally as the Bumthang Magpie. Life birds in the Chume Valley included YELLOW-BELLIED FANTAIL and SPOTTED LAUGHINGTHRUSH. As we approached Jakar the road hugged the Bumthang Chhu. From a roadside vantage point we found a straggling Mallard and saw yet another Ibisbill.
Jo saw a LITTLE PIED FLYCATCHER on the road from Trongsa to Jakar.
We continued on to our overnight stop at the brand new and well-decorated Mepham Guest House. Shirley had been X-rayed and no fractures were detected. She still could not walk so it was agreed that she and Lisa would stay with Karma and Dawa at Mepham Guest House for the next four nights. Karma would take them to various places in Bumthang as they felt up to it. That evening at dinner we met Leki, the camp chef who was to look after us for the next three days on the Lingmethang road. He and the camp crew had just arrived with the camping equipment from Thimphu. They were to spend the night at Jakar before going on ahead of us to our campsite the next morning.
A 04:30 breakfast saw us on the road shortly after 05:00 on our way to our camping experience on the Lingmethang road. It was to be a long drive across two of the highest passes on the trip - Shertang La at 3 590 m and Thrumsing La at 3 750 m - so there would not be a lot of time for birding along the way. We all experienced some effects of the altitude. For the most part these manifested themselves in the form of headaches and extreme drowsiness which was also helped on by the incessant rocking and swaying motions of the vehicle negotiating potholes, road works and hairpin bends.
The weather prospects were not good and we were looking forward to both the journey and the camping with some trepidation. There was, however, never a though of not going to this area that we had been hearing and reading about for well over a year now. Between Jakar and Ura we crossed the. At 3 590 m this was the highest pass we had crossed yet in Bhutan. Shortly after passing the picturesque village of Ura we entered Thrumsing La National Park.
The road wound tortuously through coniferous forests and across mountain streams until we eventually reached the summit of Thrumsing La itself at 3 750 m, by far the highest pass we were to cross. It was raining off and on for the entire journey and we saw only seven bird species on this portion of the trip. We tried very hard to turn a young Grey-backed Shrike into a Brown Shrike, but the bird was totally uncooperative. The only lifer in this section was a BLUE-FRONTED REDSTART on the Lirgang Chhu near the Liri Zam (Liri Bridge).
In spite of, or perhaps because of, the rain, the descent from the summit of Thrumsing La down to the village of Sengor was both spectacular and hair-raising. There were major road repairs being undertaken at the time and the road at these points was very muddy and churned up. The many heavy vehicles had created deep ruts in the mud and while we slithered and slid through them well enough on the way down, we were rather concerned about how we were to negotiate them on the way up in three days time. Shortly after the summit we saw our first FIRE-TAILED SUNBIRD. Shortly after leaving the forest the road entered an area of open meadows. The sharp-eyed Tshering spotted a movement in a roadside field and we stopped, got out and scanned the field hoping for a Rosy Pipit. In the event the bird turned out to be an almost as good ORIENTAL SKYLARK.
Our roadside lunch stop near Sengor was in a lovely patch of open meadow. Tshering told us that they normally camp in this meadow, but this year the farmers had fenced off the fields and did not want campers here. The meadow was going to be converted to fields. After lunch, during which the rain mercifully stopped for a while, we headed on down the spectacular road to our forest campsite at Norbugang. It had started raining once again and we slept through most of this spectacular part of the trip. Fortunately the weather would clear for our return trip and we would enjoy the scenery and the birding on the way back.
By the time we reached the camp Leki and his crew had got everything set up for us - two sleeping tents for us, a dining tent, a kitchen tent in which the camp crew were to sleep, and a loo tent - a small tent over a hole in the ground. After a cup of hot tea and some biscuits the rain stopped for a bit and we went for our first birding walk along the road in the forest. Life birds here included RUFOUS-NECKED HORNBILL (a species classified as Vulnerable on a global scale), RUFOUS-BELLED NILTAVA, GREY-HEADED CANARY-FLYCATCHER, ASIAN HOUSE MARTIN and CHESTNUT-HEADED TESIA. From Thrumsing La to the camp we had seen a total of 45 species of birds.
Once again it rained for much of the day, but we were able to get out for walks in between the showers. We also paid a visit to the local store - Changla Shop - where we bought sweets for the local kids and some Tiger beers for us. In total today we saw 58 bird species of which the following were lifers - GREY-FACED WOODPECKER, BLUE-BEARDED BEE-EATER, INDIAN CUCKOO, SHORT-BILLED MINIVET, SPANGLED DRONGO, YELLOW-CHEEKED TIT, WHITE-SPECTACLED WARBLER, GREY-CHEEKED WARBLER, BROAD-BILLED WARBLER, RUFOUS-NECKED LAUGHINGTHRUSH, RUFOUS-CAPPED BABBLER, GOLDEN BABBLER, CUTIA, BLUE-WINGED MINLA and the Near Threatened YELLOW-THROATED FULVETTA. We also saw a Little Pies Flycatcher in the trees above the forest so Elize and I caught up on species on Jo again. Mammalwise we had our first sighting of the threatened GOLDEN LANGURS.
Today the weather started clearing. We took birded above the camp this morning with our main target being the two trogons that are found in these forests. I got a fleeting view of the whitish undertail of a perched bird and a distant view of a RED-HEADED TROGON. Jo got a look at WARD'S TROGON - a species classified as Vulnerable on a Global Scale. Other life birds that we saw in the forest this morning include GREY-CAPPED WOODPECKER, HODGSON'S HAWK-CUCKOO, ASIAN DRONGO-CUCKOO, BRONZED DRONGO, LARGE NILTAVA and HOARY-THROATED BARWING.
Later we drove downhill toward Yongkola. We were surprised and to some extent slightly embarrassed to find Leki and the camp crew waiting with lunch for us at the roadside just opposite a newly built VIP rest house. Not only had they brought lunch but they had laid a table for us complete with tablecloth and three place settings. Later we drove further down into the valley and stopped at a small stream before turning back and heading up to our camp for our last night in eastern Bhutan. Life birds that we saw at the lower altitudes of the valley included 12 soaring WHITE-RUMPED VUTURES, a lone CRESTED SERPENT-EAGLE in flight and several noisy flocks of WHITE-CRESTED LAUGHINGTHRUSHES. We also two Yellow-throated Martens along the road so Jo and I caught up to Elize on the mammal front.
The plan was to leave at 04:30 this morning for the long drive back over the high passes of Thrumshing La and Shertang La to Jakar. Leki and the gang had hot tea and biscuits waiting for us at 04:00. For various reasons the plan did not come together too well and we ended up leaving the camp at around 05:15. We birded the forest road up to Sengor listening at likely spots for Satyr Tragopan. At a point where we actually heard one we scrambled down into the forest in a vain attempt to find them. It was at this point that Elize and I were lucky enough to spot a pair of EYE-BROWED WREN-BABBLERS on the forest floor.
Tshering heard a bird calling from inside the dense forest undergrowth and dashed off down the steep roadside bank to find it. Elize was away somewhere, but he excitedly beckoned Jo and me to join him. After much agonising and desperate staring in the dark undergrowth searching for a bird that was singing loudly trying to tell us where it was we saw it - a WHITE-BROWED SHORTWING. This dark navy blue bird with a small, but brilliantly white, supercillium was incredibly difficult to see in the dense, dark undergrowth.
While everyone else was off watering trees I got wonderful views of a RUFOUS-WINGED FULVETTA. Unfortunately I was the only one to see this lovely little bird. Not to be out done Jo and Tshering saw a BARRED CUCKOO-DOVE fly across the road in front of our van. Despite a subsequent search the bird was not seen again. We finally stopped for a roadside breakfast at our lunch spot of a few days ago, just east of the village of Sengor.
Leki and the gang, who had in the mean time broken up the camp, caught up with us at Sengor. We were quite relieved to see them in their four-wheel drive vehicle as the road works of Thrumshing La still lay ahead of us. The rain of the last few days could certainly not improved the road quality any. We needn't have worried though. Schatzi, our champion driver got us through the now VERY muddy patch without any problem at all. Only once did we need a little push from Tshering. It was nevertheless reassuring to have the 4x4 behind us. After we had successfully negotiated the road works Leki and co passed us. We met them later on the banks of the Lirgang Chhu where they had once again laid the table and prepared lunch for us.
Of the 56 species we saw between our camp and the summit of Thrumshing La the following nine were lifers - the four above plus SPECKLED WOOD-PIGEON, ULTRAMARINE FLYCTACHER, TICKELL'S LEAF-WARBLER, BUFF-BARRED WARBLER and HUME'S WARBLER.
After crossing Thrumshing La summit we walked down the road a bit admiring the beautiful rhododendrons that were still in flower here. "FIRE-TAILED MYZORNIS" Tshering shouted excitedly. We desperately searched the 'rhodos' that he was pointing at. Sure enough there it was - a multi-coloured jewel on a beautiful orange rhododendron bush. Unfortunately we were not able to put Elize on it in time for her to see this marvellous little bird. The rest of the trip back to Jakar was relatively uneventful. Near the Guest House we stopped at a vantage point overlooking a dense thicket of bamboo studded with the occasional conifer. After scanning the bamboo somewhat hopefully we were rewarded with a whole bunch of BROWN PARROTBILLS - birds that we had missed earlier near Pele La.
Karma welcomed us back to Mepham Guest House. He was going to leave us the following morning and return to Thimphu where he had some matters to attend to, including getting an appointment at Thimphu Hospital for Shirley who was still unable to walk and confirming our flights back to Delhi on Druk Air. Shirley and Lisa would join us in the Hi Ace for the remainder of the trip.
This was the de facto end of our birding trip in Bhutan - from here on out it was to be cultural activities and buying souvenirs with birding only being an incidental activity.
This morning we visited two temples - Kurjey Lhakang and Jampa Lhakang and Jakar Dzong.
Jampa Lhakang is believed to have been built in 659 AD on the same day as Kyichu Lhakang in Paro making these are the two oldest temples in Bhutan. These temples were Songtsen Gampo, King of Tibet, to subdue a demoness who was lying on her back across the Himalayas, built two of many that on the same day. Jampa Lhakang pins down her left knee.
Kurjey Lhakang is built on one of the holiest sites in Bhutan and encloses a cave on which the body print of Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche), an eighth century saint who is worshipped In Bhutan as the second Buddha, can be seen. The temple was built in 1652 by the then Penlop (Governor) of Trongsa.
Jakar Dzong is situated on top of a hill overlooking the Choskor or Bumthang Valley. It was built in 1667 and is the largest dzong in Bhutan. Apart from housing the rabdey (district monk body) in summer the Dzong houses administrative offices of the District Government and the District Court.
We returned to Mepham Guest House for lunch where we heard that Karma and the others had to spend the day in Trongsa, as there had been a landslide on the Trongsa Thimphu road. It was expected that this would be cleared by the late afternoon when they would continue on their way.
During the afternoon we drove to Trongsa for another overnight stay at Sherubling Lodge. On the way we stopped at Zungney to look at the woollen cloth and garments made by the local weavers. I wanted a jersey incorporating some of this cloth, but all the available ones were too small for me. I decided rather to order one from the lady at Sherubling lodge that would make a larger one up for me and get it to Karma in Thimphu who would in turn send it on to me in South Africa.
Of the 24 species of birds we saw today none were new for the trip. We did however see a WILD BOAR on the road.
Today was a travelling day, as we wanted to arrive in Thimphu in time to get Shirley to the hospital for more X-rays and another examination that afternoon. We saw a total of 30 species of birds along the road. Of these a lone SPOT-WINGED GROSBEAK was a lifer. We also saw a MUNTJAC or barking deer at the roadside. Our lunchtime stop was at the Gaden Tashiding Restaurant again and we stayed overnight at the Hotel River View in Thimphu once again.
Elize, Lisa and I spent the afternoon walking around downtown Thimphu while Jo and Shirley were at the hospital. This time Shirley's X-rays showed a broken femur in her hip. The Orthopaedic Surgeon at the hospital maintained that she would still be able to travel in the Business or First Class section of the normal commercial airlines provided that there was a wheel chair to meet her at each airport on the way. On contacting the travel insurance people in South Africa they said that they did not think that this was a good idea and would come back to us.
Karma, his wife Pema, Tshering, Shatu and Dawa joined us for an excellent dinner at the Hotel River View this evening. This was the formal end to our visit to this amazing country. All of us hoped to be back some time in the not too distant future and both Karma and Tshering said that they intended visiting South Africa. We felt that we had made some very good friends over the last two weeks and were quite sad to be parting so soon.
This morning was spent at the Thimphu Craft Market, the Craft Emporium, the National Memorial Chorten and the Zoological Gardens to see some Takins, Bhutan's national mammal. The travel insurance people phoned us from South Africa and insisted that Shirley be confined to her bed in the River View Hotel until they could send a doctor out from South Africa to assess the situation. They would only pay the expenses of one other person to stay with her so it was decided that Lisa would remain with her mother in Thimphu while Jo would accompany us on the Indian portion of our trip.
Elize, Thsering and I enjoyed a wonderful lunch at a restaurant in downtown Thimphu while Shatu took Jo, Shirley and Lisa back to the River View Hotel Later we collected Jo, said our goodbyes to Shirley and Lisa and drove to Paro. Here we paid a brief visit to Kyichu Lhakang where Jo lit a butter lamp for Shirley. The Lhakang is believed to have been built on the same day in 659 as Jampa Lhakang in Bumthang. It pins down the left foot of the same demoness. Later we drove to Rinchen Ling Lodge for our last night in Bhutan.
We only recorded 10 bird species today with none of them being new for the trip.
For Elize and I this was the big day - our 25th Wedding Anniversary. Our flight to Delhi left Paro Airport at 07:30 and we had to check in two hours in advance so it was another early start to the day for us. We met Tshering and Shatu for tea and biscuits at 04:15. They had been out on the town last night so were not as fresh as they could have been. We were invited to join them, but thought better of it and stayed at the lodge for the evening.
When we got to the airport the two of them very graciously presented us with two bottles of Special Courier whisky - an excellent Bhutanese whisky that they had heard we intended buying for ourselves. They also presented each of us with a white kabney or scarf.
The flight took off on time. The weather was wonderfully clear and we had
great views of several peaks from the plane on an otherwise uneventful flight
via Kathmandu to Delhi.