Bhutan: Land of the Thunder Dragon

Wedged amidst the jagged contours of the Himalayas, between India and Tibet, lies the timeless Kingdom of Bhutan. Immersed in tradition, folklore, and deep-seated Buddhist beliefs, Bhutan has in recent years opened up, and the time to visit is while these fabulous traditions and beautiful mountains remain intact. Its endless tracts of Himalayan forest carpeting the snow-capped ranges symbolizes reverence and respect for all things natural. Top quality birds like the enigmatic Ibisbill, dazzling Himalayan Monal, outrageous Satyr Tragopan, localized Ward’s Trogon, remarkable Rufous-necked Hornbill, Beautiful Nuthatch, and the breathtaking Fire-tailed Myzornis await the few devoted souls that venture into this rich kingdom. One of Bhutan’s greatest appeals is that it has retained its traditional practices and beliefs, and remains virtually uninfluenced by the west, making it not only a great birding destination, but also culturally fascinating.

Day 1: Guwahati (India) to Samdrup Jongkhar. We’ll meet at Guwahati airport in India, and drive into Bhutan at the border town of Samdrup Jongkar where we overnight, watching for Greater Adjutant and other plains birds en route.

Day 2: Samdrup Jongkhar to Narphung la. Birding around Samdrup in the morning may yield colorful birds like Silver-eared Mesia, White-rumped Shama, and Greater Flameback, before we climb into the subtropical forest around Narphung la, where we camp.

Day 3: Narphung la to Lingmethang road. Birding at Narphung la may reveal the tiny Pied Falconet, hulking Wreathed Hornbill, along with parrotbills and immaculate forktails. Next we will stop at Kori la, searching for the stunning Short-billed Minivet, Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch, Rufous-necked Laughingthrush, Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-Babbler, and Hoary-throated Barwing. We spend the next four nights camping along the famous Lingmethang Road.

Days 4-6: Yongko la (Lingmethang road). Today we’ll hit one of the finest birding areas in the Himalayas, and we will comb the lush forested valleys in order to track down awesome Rufous-necked Hornbills, Ward’s Trogons, Golden-throated Barbets, mixed parrotbill flocks, Collared Treepies, strange Slender-billed Scimitar-Babblers, Black-headed Shrike-babblers, gorgeous Golden-breasted Fulvettas, and vermillion Scarlet Finches, to name just a few of the staggering possibilities in this area.

Day 7: Yongko la to Sengor. After a final morning at Yongko la we head for the Sengor area, scouring the roadsides for mixed flocks of warblers, parrotbills, babblers, and sunbirds. We will check carefully around camp for Long-billed and Plain-backed Thrushes.

Day 8: Sengor to Jakar. The dense conifers of the Ura Valley hold gems like Mrs. Gould‘s Sunbird, Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher, Bar-winged Wren-babbler, and Red-headed Bullfinch. Thrumsing la is Blood Pheasant country, and also holds Himalayan Bluetail, Spotted Nutcracker, and the ghostly Snow Pigeon. We arrive in Jakar, where we will stay one night, and in the afternoon visit the beautiful Jakar Dzong.

Day 9: Jakar to Trongsa. An early start at Yotung la could yield Darjeeling Woodpecker, the localized Gold-naped Finch, and the peculiar Great Parrotbill. In the afternoon we descend to Trongsa, where we overnight, and make a brief visit to another stunning temple, the Trongsa Dzong.

Days 10-13: Trongsa to Tingtibi. We drop in elevation as we head towards Tingtibi, birding several valleys on the way, searching for the impressive Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Rusty-fronted Barwing, and Yellow-throated Fulvetta. We‘ll base ourselves at Tingbiti, where we camp for four nights, and target the low elevation forests for a host of cool laughingthrushes. Our camp may also hold massive Great Hornbill, Lesser Yellownape, and incandescent flocks of Scarlet Minivets, Sultan Tits, and Orange-bellied Leafbirds. Several woodpeckers are also on the long list of possibilities, including the decidedly cute White-browed Piculet.

Day 14: Trongsa to Probjikha Valley. Scattered bamboo stands provide refuge for several perky parrotbills, and roadside scrub holds Stripe-throated Yuhina and Rusty-tailed Flycatcher. We will camp one night in the Probjikha Valley.

Days 15-17: Probjikha Valley to Punakha. The atmospheric oak woods of Gangtey la hold another top target in the form of Yellow-rumped Honeyguide, and will also give us a shot at Whiskered Yuhina, and the wonderful Ward ‘s Trogon. The summit at Pele la may reveal Kalij Pheasant, Spotted Forktail, White-browed Rosefinch, and White-winged Grosbeak. We descend to the small town of Punakha for a three-night stay. Here we should be rewarded with Black Eagle, Red-headed Trogon, tiny Slaty-bellied and Gray-bellied Tesias, Black-chinned Yuhina, a trio of forktails, and several furtive wren-babblers. One afternoon will be devoted to visiting the remarkable Punakha Dzong and searching the nearby rivers for the scarce Pallas‘s Fish Eagle and much rarer White-bellied Heron. We’ll spend these nights in a Punakha hotel.

Day 18: Punakha to Thimphu. We focus our efforts on the western slopes of Dochu la, soaking up breathtaking views of the Himalayas. These pristine mixed forests of hemlock, fir, and rhododendron hold a spectacular set of target species, including the striking scarlet Satyr Tragopan. Other highlights include incredible Gold-billed Magpie, the gorgeous Golden Bush-Robin, immaculate Cutia, and the scintillating Fire-tailed Myzornis. In the evening we will descend to Bhutan’s tranquil capital, Thimpu, for a two-night stay.

Day 19: Cheri Valley. Today we explore the exquisite Cheri Valley, for Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, Brown Dipper, White-collared Blackbird, and Hodgson‘s and Blue-fronted Redstarts. In the afternoon we visit the magnificent Trashi Chhoe Dzong.

Day 20: Paro. Dawn sees us on the cool alpine meadows of Cheli la searching for the iridescent Himalayan Monal, nicknamed the “bird of nine colors”. We‘ll also sift through flocks of pink rosefinches and chunky grosbeaks. In the denser forests below we hope to track down Spotted and Black-faced Laughingthrushes. We’ll overnight in Paro.

Day 21: Departure. There should be time for some last-minute birding before heading for the airport. We have an excellent chance of seeing the cool Ibisbill, and to search for any other missing species like Black-tailed Crake.

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EXTENSION OPTIONS

Cultural extension (2 days)
This short extension takes in the magnificent Tiger’s Nest Monastery, Paro Dzong, the National Museum, Drugyel Dzong and Kyichu Lhakang – the holiest shrines in Bhutan. Please contact us for further details.

The Tiger's Nest Monastery is one of the most spectacular places on Earth
The Tiger's Nest Monastery is one of the most spectacular places on Earth (Keith Barnes)

Kaziranga and Manas extension (5 days, prior to main tour)
The grasslands of Kaziranga and Manas teem with great birds, but the most sought-after include the Bengal Florican with its extravagant dancing display, the strange Swamp Francolin, skulking Striated Grassbird, exquisite Chestnut-capped and Yellow-eyed Babblers, rare Slender-billed Babbler, and localized Finn’s Weaver. Carcasses draw in the critically endangered White-rumped, Red-headed, and Slender-billed Vultures. The impressive swamp forests harbor Pallas’s and Gray-headed Fish-Eagles, while at night we may find Brown Fish-Owl. Loquacious Great and Oriental Pied Hornbills congregate on fruiting trees, while thickets hold Large Scimitar-Babbler and the vibrant Blue-naped Pitta. The large pans and rivers are frequented by Bar-headed Goose, Lesser Whistling Duck, Indian Spot-billed Duck, and Cotton Pygmy-goose while flotillas of Spot-billed Pelicans fish in the shallows. Greater and Lesser Adjutants, Black-necked Stork, and Bronze-winged and Pheasant-tailed Jacanas patrol by the water’s edge. Both parks are excellent for mammals, and Kaziranga is one of the best places in the world to view the endangered One-horned Asian Rhino. Large herds of Asian Elephants thrive here alongside Asian Water Buffalo, the endangered Swamp Deer, and a gamut of other ungulates including Barking, Sambar, and Hog-nosed Deer. A highlight for anyone interested in primates are the troops of Hoolock Gibbon present at Kaziranga’s Paamvari Forest, whose howling can be heard for miles.

Day 1: Guwahati – Kaziranga

Days 2: Kaziranga NP and adjacent forests

Days 3: Kaziranga NP to Manas NP

Days 4: Manas NP

Day 5: Manas to Samdrup Jongkhar for start of main Bhutan tour

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. Early starts are necessary on most days since birding in the Himalayas is almost always best early in the morning. After coffee, tea, and biscuits, we will head into the field. Our crew will meet us with breakfast later in the morning. Generally we will start birding near where we are staying; however a couple of very early mornings are required to look for high-elevation dwelling pheasants that come out to the roadsides early in the morning. On most days there will be some downtime either after lunch, or after arriving back to the accommodation after the day’s birding excursion. Our crew will meet us again along the road with lunch, or we will eat in a restaurant en route.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate. Most of the birding will be on flat or slightly inclined roads or wide tracks. You can expect to walk around 2 miles (3.2 km) per day on average, mostly along little-trafficked roads. We will visit several high passes, as high as 12,100 ft. (3,700m). At such elevations, we will only be taking short walks along the road. The trip starts at very low elevation and gradually gets higher, so there is plenty of time to acclimatize.

CLIMATE: Usually very pleasant (mostly 50°-75°F, 13°-24°C). Nights and early mornings can be cool, especially as we get higher in the mountains, and we have one morning camping at ~10,000ft, where it can get down into the 30s° or 40ºsF (single digits °C). The camping crew will provide us with warm water bladders to help keep us warm at night. Some rain can be expected, but usually not enough to impede birding, and snowfall is possible at the highest elevations.

ACCOMMODATION: All hotel accommodations have hot water and electricity. One is quite basic in Gelephu, the remainder are very good to excellent, with outstanding service, great views, and delicious food. Approximately 9 nights of the trip are spent camping (mostly early in the trip), including four nights in a row at one stretch. The tents are large enough to stand in, with a cot, bedside table, and lantern. We have a camping crew with us to set up and take down camp, dig a pit toilet, and cook delicious, fresh food. They will heat water for bathing in a shower tent. The camping can be tough for people not used to it, but it provides access to some of the best forest left in the Himalayas and is very much worth it.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, but casual photographers will have great opportunities to photograph birds throughout the trip. Hunting is forbidden in Bhutan, so birds (and mammals that we come across) can be quite approachable and photogenic. Despite much of the birding being in forested habitats, most is done along roads, so there is generally decent light to get good pictures.

WHEN TO GO: This tour is best in springtime. In April, most migrants have arrived to their breeding grounds, bird song is at its peak, there are a few lingering wintering birds still around, and the weather is excellent. Early April is prime time for the Kaziranga pre-trip, because the large numbers of wintering waterfowl and shorebirds are present, as well as many of the wintering passerines. However, fall (October-November) can also be excellent in Bhutan, and custom tours can be arranged at that time of year.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Visas are required (for both Bhutan and India) for citizens of most countries. Our ground agent in Bhutan will make all of the arrangements for the Bhutan visa, which we will get upon arrival. An India visa must be procured in advance.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers and lodge staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 20, an additional one night accommodation if taking the cultural add-on, and an additional 4 nights if taking the Kazirhanga extension; meals from dinner on day 1 to breakfast on day 21 (main tour); lunch, dinner, breakfast, and lunch (cultural extension); breakfast on day 1 to dinner on day 5 (Kazirhanga extension); meals will include some non-alcoholic drinks/and or safe drinking water (if eating at a restaurant where drinks are not included, Tropical Birding will pay for reasonable non-alcoholic drinks); safe drinking water only between meals; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from day 1 to the morning of day 21 (main tour) and throughout the extensions if also taking one of the extensions; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary in suitable vehicle(s) with local driver(s); entrance fees to sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips for luggage porters in hotels (if you require their services); flights; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.