Bhutan : a birder’s paradise

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One of the first formal ornithological records of Bhutan dates back to 1838, the year Captain R. B. Pemberton led a diplomatic mission to the country. Accompanying Pemberton was a botanist, Dr William Griffith, who collected bird specimens and recorded notes on the birds he came across.

Using the quaint British spelling used then, he reports on numbers of “Syras” (a corruption of Sarus, the local name for a crane species in the plains (of India) in the valleys of ‘Bhoomlungtung’ and ‘Jaisa’ – now Bumthang and Geytsa. This is possibly the first record of the Black-necked Crane in Bhutan.

In Bumthang, Griffith found “Horseshoe-Curlew, … common in the Tung-chiew, particularly in the islets which are not uncommon in its bed”. The river is the Tang Chhu (river in Bumthang) and Griffith’s ‘Horseshoe-Curlew’ is the Ibisbill, a fascinating and rather unusual bird of the Himalayas that can still be seen in Bhutan in exactly the kind of habitat that Griffith found it in. A few Black-necked Cranes drop into Geytsa every winter even now, and many more in other valleys where they have been protected through policy initiatives taken by the adviser to Bhutan’s Environment Commission, Dasho Paljor Dorji and the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature (RSPN). Both these are high on every visiting birder’s desiderata.

Since the 1980s, the number of birdwatchers visiting Bhutan or stationed here has increased greatly, and refreshingly competent local birders from the RSPN and the Nature Conservation Division have conducted studies of Bhutan’s rich birdlife. But there is a great deal more to be discovered.

Bhutan’s faunal richness is due to several factors. A major factor is its geographical location at the junction of two of the world’s great biological regions – Palaearctic and Oriental – and in the major endemic bird area of the Eastern Himalayas. It is biologically a very diverse country, each river valley having its own characteristic climate and vegetation. Its “vertical” topography, from steamy tropical foothills to icy peaks above the tree-line, adds to the wealth of montane species. Bhutan boasts of a bird list of nearly 650 species. The country’s progressive environmental policies have preserved large areas of rich natural habitats.bob02 copy

Every visiting birder has some “glamour birds” in focus, birds that may be difficult to find elsewhere. They are unlikely to be disappointed. Soon after landing at Paro airport the intrepid birdwatcher will find Ibisbills on the Paro river that flows just by the airstrip. Bhutan’s streams and rivers will soon produce some familiar, well-loved birds, the big Blue Whistling Thrush, the colourful Water Redstarts and graceful Forktails and, with a bit of luck, Black-tailed Crakes in the irrigation channels that run through the rice paddies.

The traveling birder may come across the Himalayan Honeyguide on roadside cliffs. This is a little known but very interesting bird that guards honeycombs of the Giant Rock Bee and lives off the wax. A few pairs of the great White-bellied Heron live on some of Bhutan’s rivers, notably the Po Chhu and Mo Chhu in Punakha. We saw it on a river island just below the dzong, and were amazed at how well such a large bird can camouflage itself amongst the grey stones and rounded boulders.

The brilliant Himalayan pheasants will doubtless be another major attraction. You will have to get out of the valleys to the high passes that separate them to find these fabulous creatures.

On a visit to the east, as we climbed to the 3,800m Thrumshing la pass, we stood on the road to admire a party of 14 Blood Pheasants as they walked slowly up an open hillside, the males showy in silver-grey and apple-green, splashed with the most brilliant crimson, the females in chocolate, yellow and grey. As our vehicle rounded a corner of the Ura pass there was a magnificent Himalayan Monal on the grassy verge, its green, gold and purple plumage refulgent in the brilliant morning light. We caught our breath as it sized us up, crest erect. Deciding that vehicles were no more to be trusted than men, it took off with a great fluster over the pink Rhododendrons, whistling like a run-away engine.04

The Kalij Pheasant is the easiest of the group to find, even on the hills around the capital city Thimphu. It occurs in two races, a western race that is black above and has some white below and an eastern one, in which this combination is curiously reversed.

The Kalij aficionado will undoubtedly look for the rather mysterious Moffit’s Kalij, an all-black race of this bird with startling red on its face, as he crosses Dochu La en route to Wangdue and beyond. But the real prizes are the resplendent Tragopans, the widespread Satyr Tragopan with its scarlet breast starred with white and the rare Blyth’s with the yellow face which has been found on a few occasions in the far eastern valleys. Very elusive and shy birds, you will need a large dollop of luck to encounter one, unless you are willing to get up and reach its haunts before dawn, hide and wait patiently as the males call and display in April and May.

Then there are other “glamour” birds of the old growth broadleaf forests that are a real treasure house of flora and fauna in Bhutan. These include such rare creatures as the Ward’s Trogon in crimson-chestnut and stunning pink – the female is yellow – that tops the list along with the aptly named Beautiful Nuthatch in iridescent blue and black, and the extraordinary Wedge-billed Wren-Babbler, whose breeding biology is yet unknown.05

Who can fail to be impressed by the big Hornbills of the treetops – the enormous Great Pied Hornbill in the foothills and the colourful Rufous-necked Hornbill, of which Bhutan holds possibly the largest population in its range and a heavy responsibility for its conservation. Large roosting concentrations of Hornbills – up to 100 – have been reported in Manas, a sight to behold.

In May, there is a dawn chorus of birdsong in full stereophonic sound: Cuckoos of several species fill the air with their distinctive calls while Woodpeckers cackle and Bulbuls enliven the proceedings, and Laughingthrushes are everywhere. Above all the large Striated Laughingthrush with its loud song that has such an astonishing ring of joy and cheer about it.

Later in the morning, while walking along a trail, the forest often seems strangely quiet. Then suddenly a “bird wave” passes your way, and everything changes. Birds erupt from all sides: Babblers of various shapes, sizes and colours (Liocichlas, Yuhinas, Fulvettas), Flycatchers in blue, orange and black, Drongos shining purple in the sunlight, red and yellow Minivets, Treecreepers, Nuthatches, Cuckoo-Shrikes. You want to look everywhere, not to miss any, for there may be 30 or more types of birds all around you. And then, just as suddenly, the forest is silent once more.bob00

No self-respecting birdwatcher can fail to be impressed by birds of prey. And Bhutan will not disappoint here either. He will hear the Mountain Hawk-Eagle’s squeal and encounter the Black Eagle sailing effortlessly over the hillsides, Sparrowhawks and Goshawks will enliven the trails and the great Himalayan Griffons will be soaring over the high passes. At the right place and the right time the watchful birder may witness them in numbers along the ridges and valleys that form migratory pathways that cut across Bhutan from the Tibetan plateau to the plains of India in the south.

His Majesty’s vision for Bhutan attaches the highest priority to environmental sustainability in the processes of growth and development as an essential input in maximizing the Gross National Happiness of its people. The avifauna of Bhutan is still largely intact, and given the care that the royal government accords to the conservation of the country’s ecological riches, we hope to see it preserved for future generations to study, marvel at and enjoy.bob03

Visiting birders can help in many ways in this task. Please share your observations and records with the Department of Nature Conservation or RSPN, to help build up baseline data for future use. Do be discreet with wildlife. Frequent disturbance of breeding birds does not help, nor does over use of playback of bird song to attract birds out of the forest. In fact some feel that excessive and loud playback, especially during the nesting season, is frightening birds away from their haunts and hampering their breeding.

Source : Tourism Council of Bhutan