The second post from the birding diaries from an awesome trip to Druk Yul aka the Land of the Thunder Dragon. Continuing from where I left off in my previous post, the next place on the itinerary was Punakha.
We stayed at the Meri Puensum resort in Punakha for three nights. The weather here was warmer compared to Thimphu. The balcony of our room faced the fields behind the resort and was a good place for birdwatching. We were woken up in the mornings by the Ashy Drongoes, Oriental Magpie Robins, Common Mynas, Eurasian Tree Sparrows and Red-vented Bulbuls.
We hiked up to the Khamsum Yuley Namgyel Chorten near Punakha on our first morning. The trail passed through lush green fields and then gradually wound up its way along the hill. On the way up we saw a Grey Treepie high up a pine tree. Colourful butterflies flitted across. We saw Long-tailed Minivets and Large-billed Crows near the Chorten.
It started raining by the time we went inside the chorten and came out. We had to wait for a while for the rain to subside. I noticed a bird the size of a Dove come and perch on an electric wire a slight distance away. An inspection of the bird through the binoculars revealed it to be a Common Kestrel. It was too far for the camera though!
As we descended down the hill after the rain stopped, we saw Russet Sparrows and Long-tailed Minivets flitting around the trail. The unusual thing about Minivets which are commonly seen in pairs was that there were three of them this time together. Two females and a male! We also saw the Blue-capped Rock Thrush male in its natural habitat. We had seen it earlier this year in our umpteen trips to Nandi Hills when it migrated for the winter. It seemed so tiny in its natural habitat amidst the huge pine trees and could be easily missed!
We went back to the resort post lunch to take a snooze. As we were watching the fields from the balcony of our room, we suddenly spotted a movement on the ground in the neighbouring field. We could not identify the bird. Realizing that this was a lifer we rushed out near the compound wall of the resort with the camera. The bird was oblivious of our presence and busy foraging for insects in the mud. The size of the bird and the shape of the beak gave it the appearance of a Scimitar Babbler. When we returned to the room we poured over the book and were happy to identify the bird as a Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babbler. Scimitar Babblers are generally shy and very elusive.
In the evening we went for a walk up the hill where our resort was located with our guide Tshering. On the way we saw some Red-vented Bulbuls and Oriental Magpie Robins.
We started hearing a loud screeching sound from a tree nearby. Tshering said that it must be a woodpecker and started looking for it. After a while we managed to locate the bird and it turned out to be a Rufous Woodpecker. Another lifer and a gorgeous one at that! It led us on a wild goose chase as it flitted from one tree to another. At one point of time we realized that there were a pair of them and they had gone higher up the slopes of the hillock that we were walking on. We let Nagesh walk ahead and try approaching the woodpeckers. Both me and Tshering contented ourselves watching them through the binoculars while Nagesh crept closer to them stealthily. They were busy gorging themselves on a termite nest on a bush which was at eye level. We stood admiring them until they called it a day and flew off as it began to get dark :)
The next morning saw us up and going well before sunrise to the Punakha Dzong. The dzong is located next to the confluence of the Mo Chhu (Mother river) and Po Chhu (Father river). As Nagesh was taking pictures of the dzong from across the road I spotted a couple of River Lapwings for the first time on the other bank of the river. They looked so elegant. Sadly these birds are today endangered due to loss of habitat. Also saw some Oriental White-eyes in a bush nearby.
We then went to the Jigme Dorji National Park. On the way we saw Grey-hooded Warbler and Spotted Dove. As we entered the national park limits Nagesh spotted some movements and got off the car to figure out what bird it was. He thought that it looked like some Trogon from far but the bird literally vanished before he could get a second look. Instead he got record shots of a Maroon Oriole (lifer) and Golden-throated Barbet (another lifer).
Tshering suggested a walk next to the river to try to spot some kingfishers. Unfortunately bird activity seemed very drab here due to the sound of the trucks which are continuously plying here to carry sand off for constructing dams! We managed to see a few River Lapwings, a solitary Slaty-backed Forktail on the other side of the river, a Fire-breasted Flowerpecker (lifer again) which was way too high up a tree and a Plumbeous Water Redstart which seemed to be nesting on a tree near the river bank.
After spending some time near the river we decided to head back to Punakha dzong and stop en-route the place where we had earlier seen the Oriole and the Barbet. We saw a Grey Treepie and the Maroon Oriole again. Tshering was walking ahead of us. He excitedly waved that there was an Eagle ahead. We rushed towards where he was and saw that it was an Eagle indeed looking very similar to the Changeable Hawk-Eagle. It was being chased around by a bold Ashy Drongo. We later found out with the help of the book that it was a Mountain Hawk-Eagle (a lifer again)!
As we were on our way again we saw the Golden-throated Barbet up close. I was mesmerized by the colours of this gorgeous bird. Two shades of Green, Blue, Red, Golden, White and Black all put together! A pair of Minivets which looked smaller than the Long-tailed Minivets were flitting further away from where the Barbet was. We didn’t pay much attention to them and took just a couple of pictures of them as we were focussing on the Barbet. We realized that they were Grey-chinned Minivets (lifer) later when we saw the pictures and used the book to identify them. We never saw these birds anywhere during the remainder of our trip. There were a couple of Rhesus Macaques atop the trees.
On our way from Punakha to Trongsa we went to the village of Lobesa to visit Chimi Lakhang aka Fertility temple aka the Divine Madman monastery. In order to visit this Lakhang one needs to walk a short distance through the village past fields. On our way back to the car from the Lakhang we spotted a Common Hoopoe posing for us against the backdrop of the lush green slopes. I saw a brown bird of a similar size as a Dove land in the fields as we were walking. The binoculars revealed it to be a Common Kestrel. It gave Nagesh enough time to take a few pictures before it flew off. We had never managed to get pictures of this bird before! So we were overjoyed. We saw quite a few Common Mynas in the pools of water amidst the fields.
Punakha to Pele La
The road from Punakha to Pele La en-route Trongsa was rich with respect to bird life. We saw Verditer Flycatcher, Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush female (we had missed getting a good picture of this when we visited Binayak last year due to the fog), Plumbeous Water Redstart and the White-capped Redstart. The White-capped Water Redstarts were wary of our presence and giving Nagesh a hard time as they made him run to and fro while he tried to take pictures of them.
As we approached the Pele La pass we sighted the Yellow-billed Blue Magpie for the first time. The Magpie posed brilliantly atop a tree stump for the camera! The graceful flight of the beautiful Magpies never ceases to amaze us. They have been blessed with amazing plumes.
Pele La Pass
The Pele La pass separates the districts of Punakha and Trongsa. It was shrouded in mist when we reached there in the afternoon. Just outside a village near the pass we saw a Wedge-tailed Green Pigeon who chose to ignore us and posed brilliantly. It gave us enough time to go very close to it.
It was late afternoon when we reached Chendebji Chorten in Trongsa district. We sighted a Plumbeous Water Redstart female hopping from rock to rock along the stream that flows next to the Chorten.
As we approached Trongsa we stopped at a view-point from where the Trongsa dzong can be seen in all its splendour. We heard and later saw a Great Barbet screeching loudly sitting high up a tree far away. Green-backed Tits could be seen in trees near the view-point. Little did we know what a treasure trove Trongsa was going to prove. But more on that later in the next post!
PS – The complete list of birds we encountered in Bhutan is available on bubo.org