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.
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.
Kaziranga NP extension (5 days, prior to main tour)
The grasslands of Kaziranga 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, and localised 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 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, Watercock, and Bronze-winged and Pheasant-tailed Jacanas patrol by the water’s edge. Kaziranga is also 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 Paamvari Forest, whose howling can be heard for miles.
Day 1: Guwahati – Kaziranga
Days 2 – 4: Kaziranga NP and adjacent forests
Day 5: Kaziranga – Guwahati
CLIMATE: Mostly cool to cold. Generally dry during the day except at the passes where rain, sleet, fog, and even snow can appear. Warmer and humid beyond Lingmethang. Most of the tour is spent between 6,500-9850 ft. (2000-3000 m.), with occasional visits to mountain passes over 13,000 ft. (4000 m.).
DIFFICULTY: Easy – Moderate. There are a few optional strenuous hikes and several very early starts. High altitudes may affect certain participants.
ACCOMMODATION: Basic to moderate. For much of the tour tented camps are used. Bhutan is an underdeveloped country, lacking the extensive tourist infrastructure of some of its neighboring countries.