A memorable two week long trip, in the second week of May 2013, to the land of the thunder dragon. There was a surprise awaiting us at every turn literally. Some days it just rained birds! There were lifers as well as better sightings of birds that we’d just got a glimpse of last year during the trip to Kumaon. Two new things that we tried during this trip related to birding were my new binoculars (thanks to Nagesh who just went ahead and bought them though I was skeptical about using them) and carrying a checklist of the 600+ birds found in Bhutan. It was a daily ritual at the end of the day to tick off species seen during the day.
As usual I’d done quite a bit of reading on the birds found in the places where we’d be going to and scoured through lot of birding trip reports. We hadn’t booked a professional birding guide. Partly because topnotch birding guides are pretty expensive and we wanted to do more than just birding on the trip. We had however requested for a guide who could do a bit of both and weren’t disappointed. Our guide Tshering Chojur had a fair idea about birds and providence (luck?) also played an important role for us. Now let me start from the beginning of the trip.
Our first halt was at Thimphu for two nights. We were staying at Peaceful Resort which is tucked away in a residential area called Motithang away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre. We had got rooms on the top floor and our balcony gave a good view of the neighbouring trees. As soon as we went to the balcony we saw quite a few Russet Sparrows (see pic) in the trees and rooftops around. We saw them from up close for the first time as against the sightings high up the trees in Gagar near Mukteshwar in our trip there last year.
A pair of Common Hoopoes were busy foraging in the mud in the courtyard of a house nearby. One thing that we observed was that the Hoopoes here seemed to be lighter in colour compared to the ones that we get to see in South India. Not sure if this is the case in Northern India as well as we have not seen the Hoopoes on any of our trips there. Oriental Turtle Doves (see pic) and Long-tailed Minivets seemed to be roosting in the trees behind the resort as they kept flitting up and down at regular intervals.
On our first evening in Thimphu we went to the Tashichho Dzong. As we were waiting for the ceremonious lowering of the national flag for the day, we heard the haunting whistling tune of the Blue Whistling Thrush (see pic). Lo and behold the beautiful bird came into view hopping all over the lawn. This was our second encounter with this beauty the first being during our trip to Kumaon last year. Thereafter we saw these lovely songbirds at nearly every place we visited in Bhutan!
A White Wagtail was also present on the other side of the lawn and we had to be content watching it through the binoculars. As we were walking towards the Dzong a surprise awaited us amongst the lovely Rose bushes. A beautiful bird was busy foraging there. I excitedly pointed it out to Nagesh and said that it might be a Pied Myna. As soon as I said that, it hit me that the bird was not a Myna but the White-collared Blackbird. Thanks to Indian Birds group on Facebook where I had seen pictures of this beautiful bird, I could recognize it despite the initial confusion :) The disappointing thing however was that we had left the birding lens back in the car and the lens on the camera was meant for shooting buildings. This meant no pictures of the bird :( As were leaving the Dzong we saw some Black Bulbuls fly into a tree nearby. This experience of not having the lens on us also ensured that thereafter we carried both lenses everywhere we went in Bhutan! Given that Nagesh was traveling with both the D600 and the D300S bodies it also meant he didn’t need to swap lenses much too.
We went for an early morning walk the next day on the road leading to the resort in both directions as suggested by Tshering. The road was rife with the sounds of birds making it sound very promising. And we were not disappointed at all! As we rounded a bend a Green-backed Tit (see pic) was hopping over a fence nearby and posed for us beautifully. We had missed getting pictures of this lovely little bird during the trip to Saattal and Pangot last year. It felt great to watch the bird from close quarters.
As we walked further down the road I saw some movements in the undergrowth on the side of the road. It turned out to be the gorgeous White-collared Blackbird (see pic) male which we had missed photographing the previous day. My joy knew no bounds as the bird was busy foraging oblivious of our presence. This was the second lifer amongst Blackbirds out of the three found in the Indian Subcontinent that we had been fortunate in seeing this year. After a while we saw the female (see pic) too nearby.
Other sightings here included a Grey-backed Shrike (another lifer) which we mistook for the Long-tailed Shrike initially and the Black Bulbul (see pic). The Bulbul did not seem to be bothered of our presence and posed for us. A Rufous Sibia could be seen flitting across a compound wall. It seemed to be nesting in a tree inside the compound.
Later that morning we went to Jigme Dorji National Park near Tango Monastery. This is completely off the tourist circuit and we had the place to ourselves! Lush green fields, the river flowing nearby with a wooden bridge across it dotted with colorful prayer flags, the Tango monastery perched up high in the hill next to the river were what we got to see here.
Walking on the rocks next to the river we followed the movements of the lovely Plumbeous Water Redstarts (see pics). Tshering was telling me that the White-capped Redstart is even more beautiful and we managed to sight one after a while! Another lifer!
The next surprise came in the form of a flock of White-throated Laughingthrushes (see pic) who seemed to have descended upon us seemingly out of nowhere and we were at a loss trying to decide which bird to watch! Lifer again!
As we walked on a trail in the national park we spotted a pair of Long-tailed Minivets (see pics) and a lone Dark-sided Flycatcher (see pic) perched up high and busy feeding on insects. Russet Sparrows were all over the place. As the clouds looked ominous we had to cut short our walk here and be on our way back.
On our walk near the resort the next morning we saw a lone White-throated Laughingthrush which seemed to have got separated from the rest of the flock and was giving loud distress calls.
Dochu La Pass
The Dochu La Pass was shrouded in fog and looked enchanting. A Grey-backed Shrike (see pic) posed for us beautifully near the 108 Chortens.
We saw what seemed to be a Lammergeier soaring high above but it was way too far to get a better look. Some Eagle also seemed to be flying around but it was too far again to identify. We saw a Spotted Nutcracker for the first time perched up high on a pine tree. Since light was pretty bad and we had to crane our necks to see this bird we could not not get any pictures. Tshering assured us that we would see this bird during the remainder of our trip.
Royal Botanical Garden, Lamperi
A hidden gem of a place for birdwatching is the Royal Botanical Garden at Lamperi near Dochu La Pass. On our way to Punakha from Thimphu we spent a couple of hours here. The Rhododendron festival was taking place and it was a Sunday resulting in large crowds of locals. Lots of families were picnicking around the place and the birds seemed to have gone away deeper into the forest.
We saw a Rufous-bellied Woodpecker and a Darjeeling Woodpecker (Lifer) (see pic) high up on one of the trees near the lake. As we were having lunch outside the canteen, Nagesh saw a Common Rosefinch (Lifer) high up the tree. A Green-backed Tit (see pic) seemed very adventurous and did not mind the crowd. It came out and posed brilliantly :)
After lunch our guide Tshering introduced us to Wangchuk Phuntscho who works in the forest department. He was more than happy to take us around on a walk to try and spot birds. He was lamenting the fact that the crowd were enjoying playing games and taking boat rides in the lake instead of participating in a birdwatching walk that he had planned in the day’s itinerary. Sadly no one had registered for the walk and he was very happy to meet us who were delighted at the opportunity!
As we walked along a trail away from the crowd we spotted a Grey-winged Blackbird (see pics) from close quarters. Whoa! We had managed to see all the three Blackbirds found in the Indian Subcontinent for the first time this year!! Maybe this is the year of the Blackbird for us :D The best thing about this Blackbird is the heart shaped pattern formed by the grey feathers, visible when one is watching the bird from behind it. Its way too beautiful.
Then came the momentary glimpse of a Green-tailed Sunbird (lifer). On walking further up the trail, we came across the colourful Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush (lifer) (see pic) and a Rufous Sibia (see pic).
So many lifers in such a short span of time! We decided to come back here on our return to Paro which would be a week later. We had befriended Ishey who runs the canteen here and is an avid birdwatcher himself. Both he and Wangchuk suggested that we come back during our return trip as the place would be devoid of people and the birds would be back.
More of that return trip to Lamperi and all the fabulous birding we did in Bhutan in my upcoming posts! Stay tuned!
PS – The complete list of birds we encountered in Bhutan is available on bubo.org