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The excursion to the east
Day 1: Arrival in Bhutan.
Arrive Bhutan by Druk Air, the National Airline of Bhutan. You could fly in from Kolkatta or New Delhi in India, Katmandu – Nepal, Bangkok- Thailand or from Dhaka-Bangladesh. Upon arrival at Paro Airport, a warm reception by the Changshe Norbu representative, who will drive you to Udumwara resort in Paro. On your drive from the airport to the hotel you may see the Ibisbill, which would easily be mistaken for a stone.
In the afternoon we will explore the beautiful valley of Paro. We will continue birding northwards towards the ruins of the Drukgyel Dzong. The valley of Paro is mainly Blue Pine Forests, which is not so great for bird life but the woodlands around the Drukgyel Dzong area will provide us a good indication of the great variety that is to come in the next three weeks. Some of the common species that can be seen in this area include, Black-faced Laughingthrush, Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush, Brown Parrotbill, Chestnut-tailed Minla, Common Kestrel, Kalij Pheasant, White-collored Blackbird, Grey-backed Shrike. The more difficult birds that we will also try are some marshland species such as the elusive Black-tailed Crake and the Solitary Snipe.
Paro: Elevation – 7600 feet; Vegetation – temperate with mainly blue pines.
Overnight in Udumwara resort, Paro.
Day 2: Birding at Chelila pass and evening drive to Thimphu.
It takes about 90 minutes to the Chelila pass and hence we should start early. The road winds upwards through firstly, blue pine forests which slowly changes to higher elevation conifers such as spruce, hemlock, silver fir, juniper and finally at the summit the vegetation is mainly dwarf rhododendrons and open alpine meadows. The pass located at close to 13000 feet is the highest point in Bhutan with motorable roads. If the weather is clear we should get fantastic views of the sacred Mt. Jhomolhari and the adjacent Jichu Drake, both of which are well over 20,000 feet. The pass also offers a breathtaking view of the Haa and Paro valleys. The quest for the day will be the incredibly majestic Monal Pheasant. Other specialties include, Blood Pheasants, Spotted Laughingthrushes, Himlayan Griffon, White-browed Rosefinch and White-throated Redstarts. During our previous trips, we had Collared Grosbeaks respond to our tape and we shall try and see if we can lure them again. After breakfast at the pass we will work our way back down the road, where should see an assortment of Tit species, Red Crossbills, Kalij Pheasants, Yellow-billed Blue Magpies.
Later in the afternoon we will drive to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan located at 7700 feet.
Vegetation at Chelila pass – pine woodlands and also the only time during the tour where we will be above treeline where the vegetation is mainly alpine scrubs, dwarf rhododendrons (rhododendron cinnabarinum, rho. Lanatum, etc.)
Thimphu Elevation – 7700 feet; vegetation mainly blue pine.
Overnight in hotel Phuntsho Pelri
Day 3: Tango-Cheri valley & Thimphu Sewerage Pond.
Like Paro, the Thimphu valley is relatively dry and is surrounded by blue pine forests. But to the north of the city, the religious valley of Tango and Cheri, the vegetation is mainly evergreen Oak forest. A little before the road end we shall stop at a place with rock-bee hives hanging from a cliff to look out for the rare Yellow-rumped honey guide, which is one of globally threatened birds that is relatively easily found in Bhutan. Other birds such as the Crested Kingfisher, Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, Spotted Nutcracker, Oriental Cuckoo, and Large Hawk Cuckoo are quite common. With some luck we may also encounter the beautiful Fire-tailed Myzornis and the Satyr Tragopan, although the latter is more likely to be seen later in our trip.
In the afternoon we shall have some free time to wander around Thimphu City and engage ourselves in some cultural activities. Later in the evening we will visit the Sewerage Treatment Plant where, the enigmatic Ibisbill is quite common along with other shore birds such as Green Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, White Wagtails, and Brown Dipper. We may even see the elusive Black-tailed Crake, Ruddy-breasted Crake as well as the Common Snipe.
Tango and Cheri area – 8500 feet. Vegetation – temperate evergreen forests with Oak, bamboo and pines.
Overnight in Hotel Phuntsho Pelri, Thimphu.
Day 4: Thimphu – Jigme Dorji National Park.
We shall depart early for a full morning birding at the Dochula pass (10000 feet). Here we shall be looking out for high elevation, mixed evergreen and cool-broad leaf forests birds. Only would such colorful birds such as Fire-tailed Myzornis, Red-tailed Minla, Mrs. Gould’s Sunbird, Green-tailed sunbird, etc, match the stunning blossoms of rhododendrons and magnolias that dot the entire hillside. The wailing call of the Hill Partridge can be heard everywhere and should provide us with one of the challenges of the morning. The temperate broadleaved forest of rhododendrons and magnolias will soon give way to a semi-tropical zone where banana and orange trees, and cactuses grow in abundance. Species to look out for are: Eurasian Treecreeper, Golden Bush-Robin, Niltavas, Eurasian Jay, Mountain Hawk Eagle, Plain-backed Thrush, Great Barbet and perhaps even the rare Ward’s Trogon. The sudden appearance of low elevation species such as Red-vented Bulbuls and Common Myna is a reminder of the astonishing diversity of Bhutan within such short distances. Here the vegetation is mainly Chirpine. We shall spend the rest of the day looking for any migrant waterfowl such as Ruddy Shelduck that may still be enjoying the peace of Bhutan. Today will also be our first attempt to look out for the extremely rare White-bellied Heron. Your host in Bhutan has been responsible for initiating the survey of this rare bird through the goodwill of one of their generous clients from their International Crane Foundation trip of November 2002. Since then the heron nest has been regularly sighted, the first since 1929. Through very rare elsewhere, the heron has been regularly sighted along the Po Chu (river). During the non breeding season it is quite easy to spot this bird. But as our visit coincides with the start of its nesting time, it may not be as easily sighted. Another rare bird, we may get, as a bonus while looking for the White-bellied Heron is the Palla’s Fish Eagle.
Tonight we will be camping in the forest of the Jigme Dorji National Park, the largest park in Bhutan in an area, which according to the authors of the Birds of Bhutan (Tim & Carol Inskipp), is one of the richest bird habitats per unit area.
Docula area – elevation – 10,000 feet; vegetation – mixed evergreen and broad-leafed forests(with rhododendrons and magnolias).
Camp Area – elevation – 4500 feet; vegetation warm broad- leaved forests. Overnight in tented camp, JDN Park.
Day 5: Trashithang and Damji Area.
The pre-breakfast birding will be around our camp, where the vegetation is mainly warm broadleaved forest. We have often sighted a pair of tawny fish owls perched on the tree along the roadside and hence we MUST start early before any vehicles pass by. It is also around this area that a pair of Red-headed Trogons have often been sighted. We shall also continue our quest for the globally threatened White-bellied Heron. It is very imperative that all group members are always alert as the birds in Bhutan often move in huge mixed flocks and identifying the assortments of warblers is always challenging and yet great fun. Besides, we may also encounter some mammals such as Takin, which is the national animal of Bhutan, leopards and wild boars.
The newly constructed road towards the village of Damji has not really been explored and who knows what may be in store for us. We may find some species that may never have been reported in the region earlier. Later in the evening we will drive to Punakha and if you wish we may consider a visit to the majestic Punakha Dzong and then drive towards the Wangdue district where we will be spending the night in a hotel.
Overnight in Hotel YT, Lobesa
Day 6: Wangdi– Pele la.
Today we shall drive to Phobjikha with the hope of seeing some black-necked cranes still in residence. Phobjikha located at an elevation of 10000 feet is a glacial valley and is the biggest wetland in Bhutan. It is the winter home to about 350 black-necked cranes that arrive here in late October and start migrating back to Tibet by early March. Though unlikely, it is still possible that we may see a few cranes still lingering around. Because of the presence of the cranes, Phobjikha is one of the most important wildlife preserves in the Kingdom. By the time of your trip we would have confirmation on the presence of the cranes and if they are not in residence we would spend more time birding along the road. Specialties we may encounter today include, three species of Parrotbills (Black-throated, Brown and Great), Brown and Red-headed Bullfinch, Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, Black-eared Shrike-babbler, Black-faced warbler, Scarlet Finch, Collared-Grosbeak, Fired-tailed Myzornis, Kalij & Monal pheasants.
Pele-la pass – elevation – 11300 feet; vegetation – sub-alpine conifers and bamboo.
Overnight in hotel in Phobjikha.
Day 7: Phobjikha – Camp en route to Zhemgang.
We shall leave our hotel very early to get to the Pele la. It would take us close to an hour of driving to get there. Monal pheasants as well as Satyr Trogopan are a distinct possibility but the bird that we will be after this morning is the Great Parrotbill, which is a bamboo specialty. After breakfast, it will mainly be a driving day with occasional birding stops. From the Pele La pass, we start down into central Bhutan. The drive is very scenic and the Bhutanese film “Travelers’ and Magicians” was shot along this road.
Nearly an hour before we reach there on the winding road, we’ll have our first glimpse of the Trongsa Dzong across the breathtaking depths of the Mangde Chhu gorge. Built atop the crest of a narrow ridge, it is, without doubt, the most spectacularly sited dzong in all of Bhutan. It’s perched so far above the river that the clouds frequently float below it. From Trongsa we continue southwards until we reach the bottom of the valley and then again ascend to at elevation of about 6500 feet where we shall camp at Wangdigang for the night. Almost all the birding tours never camp at Wangdigang, which is about 8 miles before the town of Zhemgang, but we have always been planned a night here before continuing to the regular camp at Tingtibi, even though there isn’t a proper camping area, mainly for the incomparable Beautiful Nuthatch. We’ve had 100% success so far in the quest of this exquisite Nuthatch.
We will be covering a huge altitudinal range during today’s drive and hence covering quite a diverse vegetation types. The elevation at Wangdigang is about 6500 and the vegetation is mainly evergreen broad-leaved forests and open habitats.
Overnight in Camp en route to Zhemgang.
Day 8 & Day 9: Birding along Zhemgang-Tingtibi Road.
During these two days, we will be birding along the Zhemgang-Tingtibi road. The main quest during these two days will be the very rare and much sought after Beautiful Nuthatch. Other specialties would include the Fire-tailed Myzornis, Cutia, Sultan Tit, Yellow-cheeked Tit, several species of Laughingthrushes, Fulvettas, Rufous-breasted Bush-Robin, Orange-flanked Bush-Robin, White-browed and Black-headed Shrike Babblers, Black-eared Shrike Babblers, Green Shrike Babbler, Rusty-fronted Barwing, Gray Peacock Pheasant, Red-headed Trogon, several species of Cuckoos, Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Pintailed Green Pigeon, White-browed Piculet, Scarlet Finches, etc. The Rufous-necked Hornbill is also a distinct possibility. During one of our tours of 2004, we infact had two species of Hornbills, the Rufous-necked and the Great Indian, perched together on the same branch of a tree. Besides birds, the endemic Golden Langur is also very common here. In fact, our campsite is right in the middle of this rare primate’s range. Elevation at camp – 2000 feet and but we will be exploring mixed broad-leaved evergreen forests at elevations between 8000 and 2000 feet.
Overnight in camp, Tingtibi.
Day 10: Tingtibi – Trongsa.
After some early morning birding we shall reluctantly back track to Trongsa for the night for a well-deserved hot shower and a night in a proper bed. Trongsa – elevation 7000 feet.
Overnight in Puenzhi, Trongsa.
Day 11: Trongsa – Ura.
Above Trongsa the road climbs through many switchbacks, and then it passes through a misty forest of Silver Firs and bamboo on the way to Yotong La (11234 ft). The drive through magnificent rhododendron and magnolia forest is simply breathtaking. White-browed Fulvettas, Grey crested Tits, Coal Tits, gangs of White-throated Laughingthrush are fairly common. The elusive Fulvous Parrotbill is also a distinct possibility. The Gold-naped Finch has also been spotted here. Once we cross the Yotong La pass, the vegetation is mainly Spruce and Silver Fir forest with plenty of bamboo undergrowth. As we descend further, it then changes to Blue Pine forest and hence the birdlife is not especially diverse. Strangely, Bumthang is the only district in Bhutan where you find the Black-billed Magpie—nothing really exciting about that but something to take note of nonetheless. We shall spend some time exploring the Bumthang town, which resembles a cowboy town of the Wild West. Later in the afternoon we shall drive further east to the beautiful alpine valley of Ura. Ura (elevation 10000 feet) is a large, compact, and– since the advent of potato farming– quite wealthy agricultural village with an attractive temple and cobblestone “streets.” Beautiful Rosefinch, White-browed Rosefinch, Red-billed Chough, Spotted Nutcracker, Russet Sparrows, Black-billed Magpie and Rufous-breasted Accentor are some of the rather common birds that can be seen foraging in the open fields.
Ura – elevation 10,000 feet; vegetation – sub-alpine and open habitats.
Overnight in Arya Zambala, Ura.
Day 12: Ura – Sengor.
We leave early in the morning before vehicular movement begins with the hope of catching some of the most beautiful pheasants of the Himalayas, feeding along the road. It is not uncommon to see flocks of up to 30 or more Blood Pheasants feeding by the roadside. If lucky we should also see Monal Pheasant as well as the Satyr Tragopan. Flocks of Snow Pigeon have also been frequently sighted flying across the valley or foraging in the farmlands. Near Gyazamchu, in a small wetland along the crystal clear mountain stream, three Woodsnipes were sighted during our previous trips and we shall check out the site again.
The vegetation during this drive is mainly cool broadleaf and fir forest. The beauty of the landscape against the backdrop of brightly colored rhododendrons in full blossom is unmatched. Near the Thrimsingla pass at 12500 feet is an in-situ rhododendron garden, which has over 20 species of rhododendrons, six of which are endemic to Bhutan. Here we shall check out for the gorgeous Fire-tailed Sunbird and other forest birds such as: Rufous-georgetted and Ultramarine Flycatchers, Rufous-bellied Niltava, Red-headed Bullfinch, Collared-Grosbeak, Rusty-flanked and Eurasian Treecreepers, and a variety of Tit species. From the pass it is another hour to the beautiful alpine village of Sengor. We shall camp a little further down from the village, which is the prime Satyr Tragopan habitat. Besides the Tragopan, other mouth-watering species reported in this area include the Bar-winged Wren Babbler and the Spotted Laughingthrush.
Sengor – elevation – 9000 feet
Overnight in tented camp, Sengor.
Days 13, 14, 15: Yongkhola.
The road along this stretch from a pass at 12000 feet meters to just less than a 3000 feet, is considered to be amongst the best birding circuits in Asia. During our three days here we will explore the wonderfully rich, subtropical, warm and cool, broad-leaved forests along the lower section of this road (2000 to 8000 feet). The specialties of this area are; Ward’s and Red-headed Trogon, Scimitar Babblers; Parrotbills, Rufous-necked Hornbill, an assortment of Warblers, Fire-tailed Myzornis, Hill Partidges, Satyr Trogopan, Speckled Wood Pigeon, Sultan and Yellow-cheeked Tits, varieties of Bulbuls, 3 species of Tesias (Chestnut-headed, Slaty-bellied & Grey-bellied), Flycatchers, Laughingthrushes, etc.
We will be camping for the first two nights and for the 3rd night we will drive to Mongar (90 minutes) where we will be staying in a Hotel en route to Yongkola.
Camp – elevation – 6000 feet.
Overnight in camp (2 nights at Yongkhola), one night in Hotel, Mongar.
Day 16: Mongar – Trashigang-Rongthong.
A few miles from the hotel in Mongar will bring us to the Korilla pass (2300 meters) where the vegetation is mixed broad-leaved evergreen forests. The expected birds here are Siberian stonechat, Rufus-bellied Niltava, Ward’s Trogon, Gold-naped Finch, Maroon-backed Accentors, etc. We will then proceed towards the town of Trashigang, which used to be the biggest town in Eastern Bhutan until it has recently been overtaken by Mongar. Our drive will take us through the famous Yadi curves, which is a series of switchbacks passing through the village of Yadi through Chir Pine forest, corn fields and banana groves. Once we have descended to the valley floor the road follows the opposite direction of the Dangme chu river. At Chazam we turn right over the bridge and climb upwards to the town of Trashigang. We shall spend some time at Trashigang and if you wish we can visit the superbly located Dzong, which was built in 1659. Later in the afternoon we shall drive to Rongthong, where we had once spotted a Spot-bellied Eagle Owl very close to our campsite (7000 feet).
Camp- elevation 7000 feet; open habitat.
Overnight in camp, Rongthong.
Day 17: Rongtong– Morong (Camp).
Prior to breakfast we shall scan the rice fields near our camp for the elusive Black-tailed Crake. In addition we may also see some Cuckoos. Our drive today passes is mainly through settlements including Bhutan’s primer institute – Sherubtse College. Even then we should some gorgeous birds such as Scarlet Finches, Black-headed and White-browed Shrikebabblers, Emerald Cuckoos, Crested Serpent Eagles, etc. Today’s drive will also take us through some fantastic broad-leaved forests and we will also be passing our last high point of our tour at about 9000 feet meters from where we will get great views of ridge after ridge of the Himalayan hills before it descends to the plains. Our camp at Morong is at approximately 5000 feet.
Day 18: Morong area – Samdrup Jongkhar.
Our quest for the day in this moist broad-leaved forest will be the Cochoa. Other specialties include the Long-tailed Broadbill, Gray Peacock Pheasant, Red-billed Leiothrix, etc. The mytical Blyth’s Trogopan has been reported along this stretch of road and the hunt is on for every birding tour to be the first to sight it. As we drive further down the vegetation is sub-tropical and corresponding species like the Hill Myna, Wreathed Hornbill, Long-tailed Sibia, etc. should be expected.
Later in the evening we will proceed to the town of Samdrup Jongkhar for a night in the hotel.
Overnight in Hotel, Samdrup Jongkhar.
Day 19: Samdrup Jongkhar.
Since the town is right at the border with India, we will drive back into Bhutan and explore the sub-tropical forest above Samdrup Jongkhar. We should encounter several species of Cuckoos, Black-naped Monarch, Crimson Sunbird, Asian Fairy-bluebird, Red-collared Dove, Dollarbird, Red-headed Trogon,Wreathed and Great Hornbill, etc. The globally threatened Blyth’s Kingfisher has also been found in this region.
Overnight in Hotel, Samdrup Jongkhar.
Samdrupjongkhar –elevation 900 feet, vegetation mainly sub-tropical.
Day 20: Samdrup Jongkhar – Guwahati.
After some last minute early morning birding in Bhutan, you will proceed to Guwahati airport for onward departure to either Delhi or Kolkatta. Some of the birds that you may encounter during this 2-3 hour drive are Greater and Lesser Adjutants, Eurasian Crane, Asian Openbill, Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, etc.