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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative


2019 Narrative

I’m not 100% certain which Blood Pheasant encounter contributed to that species winning this year’s end of tour Bird of the Trip poll but mostly likely it was our first – the covey of five extremely close, extremely noisy males that surrounded us, all equally eager to perform, on the Pele La? Perhaps, however, it wasn’t a single encounter. Perhaps it was the sheer spectacle of seeing a massive 51 of these fantastically handsome creatures as we headed back across the Thrumsing La almost a full week later? Either way, Blood Pheasant won but it certainly wasn’t a runaway winner and, spectacular though the (repeated) performances of Blood Pheasant were, it didn’t receive votes from everyone. It could be easily argued this was more a reflection of the huge number of other fabulously memorable encounters we had, with umpteen other species, than it is of disappointment with the pheasant.

White-bellied Heron, a species that we spent the best part of a day searching for before it eventually gave itself up in spectacular fashion, garnered just as many first place votes as Blood Pheasant, but only came in second. Two other species, Ibisbill and the ever popular aptly named Beautiful Nuthatch, tied for third. We saw five Ibisbills including three on our very first morning in this fabulously bird-rich Kingdom, and three nuthatches – an elusive single on the Lingmethang road and a superb performance by a spectacular pair near Zhemgang.

But there’s far, far more to any bird tour than the star birds and, as always, our Bhutan tour is simply brimming over with memorable moments and stupendous encounters. The tour got off to a superb start with a fabulous panoramic flight along the southern edge of the Himalayan Mountain chain with spectacular mountain views blessing much of the journey. Once in Paro we were met by Kinley, our knowledgeable guide, and Nado, our superbly skilled driver, and then we were off. Soon afterwards we were watching our first quality Bhutanese birds – a small roadside marsh held a pair of inquisitive Black-tailed Crakes, while a fast-flowing river nearby produced our first Ibisbill strutting among riverine pebbles. Lunch back in Paro was a tasty introduction to Bhutanese cuisine and we didn’t have too long to wait afterwards before our third major encounter of the day: this time with an obliging Wallcreeper. What a day – and what a welcome to The Land of the Thunder Dragon!

After a night that never seemed quite long enough, we were up and at ’em again early the following morning, with the Dochhu La, our first Bhutanese pass, beckoning. True to form the pass yielded a few, but far from all, of its ornithological jewels – the best of which, amidst the myriad yuhinas, fulvettas and minlas included umpteen Hoary-throated Barwings, a brilliant Scaly-breasted Wren-babbler (aka Cupwing), very cooperative Darjeeling and Rufous-bellied Woodpeckers, several Rusty-flanked Treecreepers, no less than three Green Shrike-babblers, memorable looks at several fascinatingly-named Fire-tailed Myzornis, a demure Yellow-rumped Honeyguide and a fine male Fire-capped Tit.

Spending the following two nights in a new hotel overlooking Punakha dzong gave us the opportunity to relax a little and look at a few of the region’s more common species. Two rather too brief and rather too elusive Kalij Pheasants, an adult Rufous-bellied Eagle, three species of forktail, some great looks at a party of Scaly Laughingthrushes and several Barred Cuckoo Doves as well as a fantastic Tawny Fish Owl, which flew in while we were having breakfast, provided much of the morning’s entertainment before Kinley took us on an insightful and thoroughly enjoyable guided tour inside the magnificent Punakha dzong. Even the most fanatical birders among us felt that our time had been well spent.

With spring migration in full flow and the rivers immediately around Punakha (once Bhutan’s winter capital) harbouring decent numbers of waterfowl, we spent time looking at and searching through those the following day. More close-range Ibisbills, as well as our first Crested Buntings, Striated Prinias and Pallas’s Gulls were perhaps more memorable than the Eastern Spot-billed Ducks. The Bar-headed Geese and the male Bluethroat were also well appreciated. Later in the day we climbed higher, up and into the cloud and rain and, after a spectacular performance from a pair of Spotted Laughingthrushes, descended into the flat-bottomed Phobjika Valley. Unfortunately no late-staying Black-necked Cranes lingered there this year.

Our second major pass, the Pele La, welcomed us the following morning. The day’s primary target, the always resplendent Himalayan Monal, gave itself up spectacularly well and, like an over-sized, fluorescent Turkey, he had us transfixed. We were equally enthralled by the aforementioned Blood Pheasants while our third quarry, another gamebird, Satyr Tragopan, took a bit more effort. After a few fraught and nervous minutes, during which it stopped calling altogether, it resumed its timid-sounding vocalisations and was even closer. Heartbeats quickening as the calling continued to approach and then, suddenly, there it was, apparition-like, breaking into a typically tragopanesque lolloping run across the hillside no more than 30 metres away. What an aptly-named gorgeous creature he was. We were on the Pele La, it was only our fifth full day in Bhutan, and we’d just had brilliant encounters with three spectacular pheasants! We thought then that those might well be our first and our last encounters with each of them but how wrong we were! We’d eventually finish the tour having seen 68 Blood Pheasants, four Himalayan Monals and, most remarkably, eight separate tragopans. What’s more everyone saw Blood Pheasant, Himalayan Monal and Satyr Tragopan; everyone saw Beautiful Nuthatch, Rufous-necked Hornbill and White-bellied Heron; everyone even saw the Sikkim Wedge-billed Babblers that sat and sat and sat and sang in our faces. Virtually everyone saw ALL the best birds on the tour.

Heading from the Pele La, via a party of Snow Pigeons and some fantastic Grandalas, to Trongsa (where we revelled in Russet Bush Warbler and Bhutan Laughingthrush) we overnighted there before continuing our eastward traverse heading up and over the Yotong La. Our next destination was a comfortable guesthouse in Bumthang, replete with Red-billed Choughs in the garden and buckwheat pancakes in the restaurant.

Over the years we’ve found that the drive over Bhutan’s highest road pass, the mighty Thrumsing La, between central and eastern Bhutan, provides some excellent birding and this year, with more Blood Pheasants, Red Crossbills and Spotted Nutcrackers, was no exception. The following night’s 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 were hardworking and capable. It was all just as well as we were about to have three more nights under canvas!

The Limithang road yielded five more tragopans the following morning and a good number of our remaining target species over the following few days. Highlights here included a hugely cooperative Slender-billed Scimitar-babbler; two Hill Partridges; all three species of tesia; Pygmy, Bar-winged, Rufous-throated and a fairly obliging pair of Long-billed Wren-babblers; a superb White-gorgeted Flycatcher; three brilliantly vociferous Sikkim Wedge-billed Babblers; White-naped Yuhinas galore; several encounters with Himalayan Cutias, an enchanting Black-throated Parrotbill and a Black-headed Shrike Babbler that came from over the horizon to sing in our faces.

But it wasn’t all straight forwards – the only Ward’s Trogons that we heard were distant and immediately moved away; our one and only Blue-naped Pitta was only heard and repeated encounters with Grey-sided Laughingthrush left much to be desired as did our two fleeting encounters with Golden-breasted Fulvettas. Nevertheless we’d had a great time on the Limithang road and, while we certainly hadn’t ‘cleaned up’, we headed back over the Thrumsing La more than satisfied by what we had experienced. From Jakar we retraced our route back through Trongsa before turning down the Zhemgang road. Here we revelled in views of multiple Golden Langurs, a fine male Sapphire Flycatcher and several more Sultan Tits before making it to our campsite, which held Pin-tailed Green Pigeons, a Pale-headed Woodpecker and a Spot-bellied Eagle-owl!

We spent much of the following day searching, in the rain, for White-bellied Heron but still found time to add Pale-billed Parrotbill, White-browed Scimitar Babbler, Rufous-faced Warbler, Blue-throated Flycatcher, Rufous Woodpecker and myriad others to our burgeoning lists. Oh, and we saw the heron – two of them! We refocused on Beautiful Nuthatch (a bird some of us had seen on the Lingmethang road) and were well rewarded for our efforts with superb views of a pair.

Another Spotted Elachura, ‘no longer a wren babbler but still spotted’ performed brilliantly for us all, and from the road, the following morning and then we started our final descent. The hills of Bhutan spill out into the plains of Assam at Gelephu, our final Bhutanese halt, and it was here (after seeing White-breasted Parrotbill and three more magnificent Rufous-necked Hornbills), that we said goodbye to the crew who’d taken such superb care of us over the previous weeks, and left Bhutan. The drive back to Guwahati in Assam was uneventful (or as uneventful as any drive in India ever is) but was enlivened by a good number of birds, many of which were new to us. Unfortunately these didn’t include Greater Adjutant, the day’s primary target, until we reached the city dump. Just as ripe and just as unpleasant as we expected it to be, the dump and surrounding area was certainly full of adjutants! With the region’s primary target firmly in the bag we head to our hotel – the wrong hotel – but one that was nicer and better located than the one we had a booking at, and, after some negotiations and an exchange of money, our booking was changed. The following day we started our journey home via a brief interlude in a comfortable Delhi hotel.

Our memories of Bhutan are sure to fade, but hopefully not too quickly and I’d hope that we’ll long remember our encounters with Blood Pheasant, Satyr Tragopan, Himalayan Monal, White-bellied Heron, Rufous-necked Hornbill, Beautiful Nuthatch and Sikkim Wedge-billed Babbler to mention but a few. I wrote the following at the end of a previous Bhutan tour report: ‘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, really awesome, and Paul’s in little doubt that this tiny kingdom hosts some of the best birding on the planet, and after a tour like we’d just had, who could argue with that?

-        Paul Holt

Created: 25 April 2019