A week of bird watching in the land of happiness
The plane banked right, then left. Snow-clad Khangchendzonga beckoned on the left. My eyes were more fixated on the Himalayan foothills on either side between which our plane weaved as if it were in an auto rickshaw negotiating an over-crowded Chennai street. We were approaching Paro airport at Bhutan and I recalled with disquiet that the airport was among the most difficult in the world to land on. Gusts of wind that rocked the plane did nothing to ease our minds. Anyway, a successful landing ensued and we commenced our birding trip in the land of “Gross National Happiness”.
Bhutan has several firsts: a country where a monarch abdicated voluntarily to set up a democracy, and where environment preservation is in the forefront. The crystal clear waters of the Pochu river yielded our first major target: the ibisbill, a specialist of such rocky Himalayan rivers. Fading light and the thought of a 3:30 am wake-up alarm the next day sent us back to our lodge for a warm bath and dinner. Monals, blood pheasants and tragopans beckoned.
The first sunrays of the morning created a flash of iridescent purple by the side of the road as we rounded a corner: shouts of “monal” followed but the charismatic large pheasant hurriedly scurried away before we could get a photo. Pairs of aptly named deep red colored male blood pheasants and plainer grey females were less shy. We got several frames of this stunner on three occasions, partly compensating for the monal’s hurried departure. We had groggily risen at 3 am to make the drive up to Chele-la pass before sunrise and the rising sun regaled us with stunning views of snow-clad Jomolhari, the holy (and highest) Bhutanese peak on China border. On the other side of the pass where the town of Haa, the last outpost before Tibet and home to a large Indian military presence, apparently for as long as the last 90 years. Breakfast was at the pass, which at 3988 m was the highest in Bhutan and made us gasp for air and left several of us with headaches. Sandwiches, potato chips (no diet rules or calorie counting here!) and hot tea helped get over the altitude sickness, but we decided to do our birding on the way down, as the descent is the only real antidote.
Rich coniferous forest birding followed: white-winged grosbeaks and a bunch of common mountain finches greeted us, and four species of tits and two species of tree-creepers were ticked off. The male collared grosbeak was identified from the almost identical black and yellow grosbeak, only by the typically grey headed accompanying female: after all, aren’t we all judged by the company we keep! A pair of Rufous-bellied woodpeckers kept calling loudly and were photographed mating by Nikhil Bhopale, our group leader.
Soon it was time to leave for the long drive east to Thimphu the capital, for lunch and then on to Punakha. As we crossed Dochu-la pass and headed east, we stopped at the Royal Botanical gardens. A short trail, the Serchu Nature Trail, invited us for an hour of very productive birding. Heard loudly but not seen as the trademark of a cuckoo: a dream for many of us was the Himalayan cuckoo but the large hawk cuckoo eluded our efforts to track down its maniacal calling. Red-tailed minlas and a Eurasian jay were the highlights among the twenty-odd other species that we added to our list before heading on to Punakha.
Day 3 was driving day, a strenuous bumpy drive further east to Pele-la pass and then on to Trongsa and Bumthang, on roads made dusty by relaying and widening. Apparently, the plan is to construct the two-lane highway and blacktop the entire road to the eastern border, within a year, at a speed unimaginable back in India. The monotony of the drive was broken by sightings of the lesser cuckoo and a pair or crested kingfishers, the largest kingfisher in the subcontinent. The appearance of a pair of yellow-rumped honeyguides near a set of Giant Rock bee nest was the highlight of the morning drive to Pele-la pass.
A mid-morning stroll at Pele-la pass (altitude 3388m) was an idyllic experience in bright sunlight amidst flaming pink and red rhododendrons. A satyr tragopan call got us all excited but we had to settle for excellent photos of the green-tailed sunbird and rufus-vented yuhina. A distinctive warbler with bold black markings on its crown and a yellow eye ring, much like a whiteye, got us all excited. However a subsequent analysis of the photo with two authoritative bird guides still could not pin down its identity: was it Whistler’s, green-crowned or grey-crowned (a record for Bhutan)? Voices were raised and vehement opinions were proffered. A truce was called only when we agreed to record it under the old name – golden spectacled warbler – which comprised all three species. Welcome to the world of the crazy bird watcher!
The day droned on in a forgettable amalgam of bumpy, dusty roads and monotonous coniferous forests. We were told by Mincha Wangdi, our Bhutanese host and guide, that we would be taking a detour to visit Tharpaling monastery in the evening, on our way to our night halt at Bumthang. He said we could see monals, blood pheasants and even satyr tragopans there with ease. Some kind of zoo or aviary, we assumed, and dozed off.
We were awakened by a cold blast of wind at the monastery, located at 3625m, but even while we scrambled for our woollens, a monal male and female strolled into view giving us full frame shots in all their iridescent purple finery. As we turned downhill in the fading light, with eyes peeled, the gods smiled again! A handsome male satyr tragopan, all red and spotted with black head and blue neck, posed for a full 15 minutes by the roadside and gave us photo-op of a lifetime. The female that followed was the icing on the cake. Somehow the bad roads and sore backs were instantly forgotten and replaced by broad smiles and high fives.
Next day, the mandatory 3:30 am rise was followed by a drive in the early morning sun to Shetong-La before reaching the postcard-pretty village of Ura. A bright red satyr tragopan paused before scampering off across the road. A monal was glimpsed before it ducked for cover. Not so with the blood pheasants: two separate pairs obligingly pecked insects off the road while our cameras went off like machine guns. The male with blood-red throat and black and white markings left us all drooling. And the coup de grace was a flock of brown parrotbills, calling loudly and scampering up and down like monkeys on a roadside bush! They say when it rains, it pours. Rather rich birding for a group that didn’t use a single call playback throughout our trip. Breakfast after that tasted really good.
Phrumsengla National Park, named after the 3745 m pass, was to be our birding destination for the next couple of days. Roadside signs exhorted us to enjoy the tragopan, monal and blood pheasants and even the yellow-rumped honeyguide, which we saw again close to its trademark bees nest habitat. A sign alerted us that we were in one of the best red panda habitats in the word: there are also tigers, leopards and dholes here though sightings of mammals are near impossible due to the rugged terrain and thick evergreen forest. The steep fall in altitude after the pass changes the habitat within a short span, from rhododendrons and conifers to broad-leaved forest and explains the rich bio-diversity of this area. Verdant forest and picturesque waterfalls were our constant companions during the drive through the national park. Evening birding in the semi-cultivated area outside the park revealed a dozen or so new species and a troop of capped langurs, one of whom was being mobbed by a group of bronzed drongos. The highlights were the rufous-necked laughingthrush, the striated laughingthrush and the loudly cackling distinctive white-crested laughingthrush. We turned in at Yongkola at dusk, for our first break from nonstop birding and travelling. Our home for following two nights – it’s situated on the park fringe on the other side.
The next whole day was to be spent birding at Phrumsengla itself starting at the shockingly late hour of 6 am. Since pheasant sightings were all done with, we could afford to sleep in a bit! The constant pieu-pieu of the great barbet, the plaintive wail of the hill partridge, the ascending maniacal call of the large hawk cuckoo and the ko-ko-ko-ko of the collared owlet were the background symphony on which various soloists were heard: green magpie, beautiful nuthatch, red-headed trogon and even the tiny tesia. All were birds one would die to see and not just hear but only the green magpie was sighted from a distance. A magnificent rufous-necked hornbill enthralled us for a while before flying off, and a little forktail hopped about near a mountain stream. Grey-sided laughingthrushes, a gold-naped finch and a red-faced liocichla completed the guard of honour for the morning.
The excitement of seeing a snake on the road had Nikhil Bhopale jumping out of the back window of our vehicle and prompted one of the ladies to replicate his feat, her skills as a yoga teacher coming in handy. It turned out to be a Himalayan keelback, unfortunately badly injured by a prior vehicle. Lifers at Phrumsengla continued in the afternoon: greater rufous-headed parrotbill, a group of yellow-breasted greenfinches and a lesser racquet-tailed drongo. My list of ‘birds watched’ in this trip was up to 30, but it was time to start the two-day drive back to Paro the next day.
Glorious morning sunlight bathed Phrumsengla as we started our return with a search for the beautiful nuthatch and the red-headed trogon, desperately desired additions to our list. What we got instead was the unmistakable metallic tst-tst-tst of the greater rufous-headed parrotbill, followed by sightings and full frame photos. Then followed that sultan of birds, the sultan tit, with its yellow plumaged finery, accentuated by the morning sun. No, we didn’t see the two we had set out for as we had a strict no call playback policy, but we didn’t exactly feel let down having spotted their substitutes either.
“A breakfast in hand is worth two birds in the bush” I replied to Nikhil as he said, “come on, time to move on for more birding”. We were at Namling waterfall (means endless tomorrow, after the number of times landslides force rebuilding of the road), enjoying the breakfast that seemed like the best in the world (pooris and bhaji, followed by hot tea), opposite a verdant waterfall. I was in no hurry to move! As the altitude rose and the forest changed from evergreen to coniferous, window birding followed: it’s defined as hearing a call or seeing a new species, stopping, jumping out in excitement, seeing and hopefully photographing it and then moving on wearing chuckle on your face. Perhaps if we as a society do more window birding and less window shopping, more of us will reach nirvana! That is of course, if you don’t overdo the snacks (khakras, banana chips, murukku, channa dal, etc) in between each stop. The surprises and joy of window birding continued: red-headed bullfinch, scaly laughingthrush and fire-tailed sunbird, whose tail looked like a long red pencil ruler in the bright sunlight. Thereafter, a lunch of noodles and omelettes tasted like best ever!
Our Bhutanese host, Mincha Wangdi, knew the birding spots like the back of his hand and trotted out a series of delightful one-liners: ‘husband, wife and bachcha (for a family of greenfinches)’; ‘no, no liocichla’s valley is the previous one’, ‘this is the green magpie valley’; ‘he open the full mouth with the full energy’ (for a loudly whistling warbler). He was also a fine tenor, whose songs on the long drives were naturally inflected by his Buddhist chanting style, and a delightful raconteur, who was the source of many a laughs. We halted for the night at Trongsa, where morning birding started at the tolerably decent hour of 5:30 am, and we were promptly rewarded: the Streak-breasted scimitar-babbler and two laughingthrushes (chestnut-crowned and Bhutan). The satisfaction of seeing so many species was immense, that too without disturbing them and without call playback which would interfere with nesting and breeding: perhaps Bhutan can take the lead in introducing a national no playback policy for birders as done in parts of Sri Lanka.
It wasn’t all milk and honey for us though. The construction of the east-west highway through the country meant that we spent most of our time on bumpy, dusty roads which essentially doubled our driving time, less sleep (thanks to waking up unearthly hours and checking in late at our night halts. While Bhutan is far ahead of most countries in having set aside 60 percent of the country for the forest, there is creeping habitat loss to agriculture and development: many of the rare pheasants we saw were outside protected regions. A couple of areas for critically endangered birds, such as the black-necked crane (Wangdi) and the white-bellied heron (Kamichu), have already been destroyed though these iconic birds can still be seen in Pobijikha and Pochu-Punakha respectively. The road widening means it will take a couple of years for the roadside flora and birdlife to restore and settle down again: no pheasants are being seen in widening areas where they were readily seen earlier.
Still a wonderful week: tragopans, monals, blood pheasants, parrotbills, twelve species of laughing thrushes and glorious scenery will keep my “Gross personal happiness” high for quite a while!
Cover Pic: Mount Jomolhari
Read also: Junglimericks: In the Crazy Wilds of India
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