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Birding In The Kingdom Of Happiness

Birding In The Kingdom Of Happiness

The mythical Shangri-La might well be in Bhutan, suggests Bhanu Singh, for whom each moment in the mountains offered ‘sightings’ to remember.

The old trade route from Tibet to Bhutan passes through the fertile Paro valley, which is watered by the Paro Chhu river and surrounded by the Jomolhari mountain range. Photo: Bhanu Singh.

My December 2015 snow-trek had been cancelled and I was looking to replace that lost opportunity at the very earliest. That is how Bhutan entered my life. On an earlier trip to Manas, I had very briefly experienced the beauty of Bhutan’s pristine forests, the cold eastern Himalayan weather and the stunning diversity of birdlife.

A quick search on the Internet revealed a trip report titled ‘Birding in Western Bhutan’ written by Bikram Grewal, birdman extraordinaire. He wrote about the incomparable diversity and how for some reason the birds there were not quite as shy as they normally are in the Northeast. I interpreted that as ‘better photo opportunities’.

My wife and I took a Druk Air flight to Paro (Bhutan’s only international airport), where we met our guide, Yeshey, and driver Kelley. Dressed in their ethnic attire ‘Gho’, they greeted us with that welcoming smile so characteristic of the Bhutanese. It took no more than a few minutes in their company to know we were in for a memorable trip. In some ways, they reminded me of Karma ji, our guide in Ladakh; similar features, attire and the same wonderful sense of humour.

Little wonder that Bhutan is known as the ‘Kingdom of Happiness’. It’s in the Himalayan air!

The first day in Paro was easy; we visited the fortress-monastery of Paro Dzong, the Paro Museum and a traditional Bhutanese medicine centre. One of the finest models of Bhutanese architecture, Paro Dzong was a small temple that was later turned into a five-story stone fortress called the Hungrel Dzong or Rinpung (the name means heaps of jewels). We were informed that in 1907 all of its treasures were destroyed in a fire, but it was resurrected and it now houses the National Museum of Bhutan.

After having lunch at a local restaurant, we drove toward Thimphu and saw a host of common and endemic birds including the Blue Whistling Thrush, Coral-billed Scimitar Babbler and the Oriental Turtle Dove along the way.There are no traffic signals in Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan, but we discovered enough ATMs, internet cafés and restaurants. After a delightful interlude, we headed for Chele La, the highest motorable pass in the country, a touch before dawn the following morning.

The mixed evergreen fir, cyprus, rhododendron, oak and bamboo forests make Dochu La a biodiverse haven for avians such as this Eurasian Jay. Photo: Bhanu Singh.

Chele La

Bird song was everywhere. As we ascended the slopes, visibility improved and our first sighting of the day was a White-collared Blackbird, followed soon after by an encounter with a flock of White-throated Laughing Thrushes. Our road wound its way up through blue pine forests and, higher, through silver fir and spruce. This was where the pheasant sightings began. Our first was a male Kalij Pheasant, followed by a female. As the sun gained strength, and we approached the summit, the sight of the snow-capped peak of the mighty Jomolhari mountain took our breath away. Peering through my viewfinder, I felt like I could reach out and touch it, though I knew in reality the trek involved a week of rigorous climbing.

The road to Chele La was long and narrow, winding its way through forests, where clearings were carpeted by lovely, purple Primulas. A beautiful Satyr Tragopan appeared from the bushes to add a heavenly touch to this setting. An elusive and near-threatened bird, the Satyr Tragopan sports a crimson back with white dots, like a diamond-studded robe. The bird looks stunning enough in a photograph, to see one live in this picturesque setting was a dream come true.

It’s difficult to explain to people who have not experienced the Himalaya just how moving these mountains are. They instill a feeling of joy and a unique peace within impossibly tranquil settings. You don’t really need ‘sightings’. Every vision is a ‘sighting’. On our return we were treated to the unexpected sight of a barking deer, and a few large-eared pikas, endemic to the Himalaya. As for the birdlife, it was ubiquitous. Of course, it takes discipline, dedication and persistence to photograph the avians, but I was able to capture enough frames to cherish lifelong.

On our second day we travelled further east to Wangdue Phodrang, passing the high pass at Dochula at 3,050 m. Atop Dochula we saw a conglomeration of 108 chortens (stupas) built in memory of Bhutanese soldiers killed in the 2003 war against armed insurgents. The route to Punakha and the Wangdue Phodrang valley involved a descent of roughly 1,800 m. We first passed through temperate, broad-leafed forest and then through a semi-tropical zone.

Here I was able to record many species of birds fluttering around fruit trees such as orange and banana. The birding was beyond good. The ones that stood out included the Eurasian Jay, Spotted Nutcracker, Green-backed Tit, Black-chinned Yuhina, Rufous Sibia, Hoary-throated Barwing, White-throated Laughingthrush, and Fulvous-breasted Pied Woodpecker.

We stayed the night at the Kichu Resort, set in a pristine spot that overlooks the Dang Chu river. Built in traditional Bhutanese architectural style, the rooms were everything we had hoped for… comfortable and tasteful. That evening we were treated to a soft Himalayan sunset as night fell silently over the mountains.

Our location was perfect for lowland birding, with an abundance of Himalayan Black Bulbuls, redstarts, Blue Whistling Thrushes, Green-backed Tits and more.

The many flag posts at Chele La serve as perching points for a host of birds including this Spotted Nutcracker. Photo: Bhanu Singh.

An early start

As any birder will confirm, early to bed and very early to rise is a prerequisite for a fulfilling trip. Our next destination was the famous Jigme Dorji National Park (JDNP) and we looked forward to seeing some of the many endemic and elusive birds we had only heard about or seen in books. At 4,316 sq. km. this is the largest Protected Area in Bhutan and undoubtedly one of the most biologically rich in the Eastern Himalaya. Spread across hilly terrain on the bank of the Mo Chu (Chu = river) the area comprises around 1,000 households whose subsistence agriculture and animal husbandry are easily sustained, with little effect on biodiversity.

We walked down to the river and as I placed my feet in the cold water, I saw a Brown Dipper fly in to sit casually on a nearby stone. It was a magical moment as the bird literally posed for me. It was that kind of a birding trip. No fixed itinerary, an easy pace and lots of time to sit and stare!

In search of pheasants, we chose to return from Punakha to Chele La where I hoped to see a Blood Pheasant. We halted at Par overnight and then continued with our journey.

Yeshey arrived at 4:15 a.m. to find us ready and eager to start on a somewhat more focused trip. Twilight renders photography a challenge, but this is when elusive pheasants are most easily spotted. At an elevation of around 3,000 m. a Satyr Tragopan sent out its peculiar wailing call from the valley below us. Getting off the vehicle, we walked down a little where we heard yet another call, which was supplemented by one from a Blood Pheasant.

Walking silently, avoiding dry leaves and twigs, we walked upwards for around 50 m. until we came to a narrow stream beyond which we arrived at the same motorable road where we had left our vehicle. The light was improving, but barely. On a dead tree ahead of us, I saw a black blob, which, after boosting the ISO on my camera, turned out to be a Blood Pheasant! Birders will understand the sense of pure job satisfaction. Filled with gratitude, I sat down for a bit to relive the moment. That bird still sits on the top of my list of sightings.

During our descent, the skies brightened and, to our delight, a pair of Blood Pheasants made an appearance. Then a Spotted Nutcracker flew downhill, perhaps heading home. Those were my last shots of the trip. Heading home I was filled with gratitude for all that nature had blessed me with on this trip.

Map Not to Scale.

Trip Tips

* The Indian rupee is accepted on par with the local currency, the Ngultrum. I had been advised to carry Indian currency in denomination of up to Rs. 100, but I did not have any difficulty with the Rs. 500 or Rs. 1,000 bill. They were accepted almost everywhere.
* Indian cell phone networks do not work in Bhutan; however getting a local SIM is easy. You just need to provide a copy of your passport.
* I found Indian and continental food almost everywhere, but I highly encourage travellers to taste the local cuisine. For beer lovers, Druk 11000 is a must try.
* There are good chances of finding the same bird at multiple locations, so if you miss one in the beginning, do not fret. I saw several common species in Chele La and Dochu La.
* Even if you are travelling in peak summer don’t forget to carry your woollen clothes. The weather on passes is unpredictable, it can get very cold if it’s windy.

Author: Bhanu Singh, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVI No. 10, October 2016.


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