On the Wings of the Peaceful Dragon
Birding in Western Bhutan
Text: Bikram Grewal
Images: Ramki Sreenivasan & Sumit Sen
22November - 28November, 2008
Much of the pristine forest in the Eastern Himalayas, that is still intact, lies in the sparsely populated Kingdom of Bhutan. Here the people are mostly Buddhists and therefore pacifists.
Killing of birds and other game is almost non-existent and that means that they tend not to disappear at the first sight of humans, as is common in most other parts of the Northeast India. I grew up in Assam, literally on Bhutan's doorstep and often entered its southern bits, legally as well as illegally. In the nineties, my friends Tim and Carol Inskipps shifted their attention from Nepal to Bhutan and they would return elated from this small kingdom, with mouth-watering tales of an "all black" Khalij or a Swiftlet, perhaps new to science. I would sit lapping up their words determined to follow their footsteps. In the event, this took almost a decade and was triggered by a chance meeting with Peter Lobo who had done much bird-related ground-work and found locations where birds like Hodgson's Frogmouth and Ward's Trogon can be seen. I then badgered my friend Sumit Sen to come up with a strategy. Despite numerous run-ins with Sumit, I must admit that he is the picture of serenity and composure and came up with a meticulous plan, so exhaustive, that I could have written this report without ever have set foot in that divine country. Each day was carefully planned, with maps and target birds appended. All we had to do was to arrive. We also roped in Ramki and his wife Swarna, to bring some youth and sanity to the group and to prevent Sumit and me from murdering each other.
Other than the birds, it was the countrywide concept that wealth here, was not measured by filthy lucre but by 'Gross National Happiness' that had me hooked. I was further intrigued by their then King, who married three sisters on one day, and a fourth when she came of age! Rumours persist that a fifth diplomatically declined to join the merry gang. And so a sunny day in November found the quartet at the Druk Airway's counter in Kolkata's International Airport. Bhutan's national airline (the only one who fly into the country) are notorious for postponing and cancelling their flights at short notice and after several false starts we were finally on the plane and air-bound, quivering with anticipation. While flying to Paro it is advisable that you grab the seats on the left of the plane for on a clear day you can see the high peaks with names like Ganesh Himal, Cho Oyu, Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, Kanchenjunga and Jhomulhari. The landing in Paro is considered to be one of the most perilous in the world and there are only a handful of pilots who are licensed to perform this feat. It lived up to its hair-raising reputation and when we touched ground, the entire plane burst into spontaneous clapping.
Paperwork was quickly disposed off and we met up with our guide Tashi and driver Mangal of Sakten Tours and Treks, who somehow managed to fit our enormous amount of luggage into a large van and we sped to our hotel on the outskirts of town. Paro is a small town of about thirty thousand people and is set at an altitude of about 7000 ft. The drive from the airport to town, gives you the first taste of Bhutan and whets your appetite for more. The fast flowing Paro Chu river, emanating from the glacial waters of Mt. Jhomulhari, rushes furiously over rocky boulders on the right of the road, while the majestic Paro Dzong looms large with the Ta Dzong (now the National Museum) nestling above it. To the uninitiated, a Dzong is a distinctive kind of fortress found in Bhutan. It serves many functions, encompassing the spiritual, social and temporal. It had grown dark by then and it was through fading light that we first picked up the shadowy silhouette of a Brown Dipper and a few White Wagtails. We quickly disembarked, grabbed our binoculars and peered hopelessly through them. A small reddish bird hopped on a bare willow tree and a huge discussion developed as to its identity. After many observations, consultations with books, it was pronounced to be a Hodgson's Redstart. If we had known then, that it would be one of the commoner birds of the trip, we might not have been so animated.
We checked into the charming Hotel Janka, set in fields beyond Paro and quickly returned to town to check out its nightlife and find a place to eat. Two lessons were learnt that night: Booze is extremely cheap and good and that Bhutanese food is a mix of noodles, rice and vegetables in cheese. It is also repetitive. It was also on this night that Ramki discovered the joys of the Bhutanese National Dish Ema Datse, which comprises fiery green (or red) chillies in a cheese sauce. It was served at every meal much to Ramki's never-ending delight. We ordered for breakfast to be collected at four the next morning and returned to grab a few hours sleep.
Awake at three next morning and out by four with all the bags in the car and so began the first of our serious birding expeditions -- to the Chele La (La means a mountain pass) the highest motorable road in Bhutan. In our excitement, we had left an hour too early (another lesson learnt! Sunrise in November is never before seven) and had to sit it out in the car, midway, waiting for the false dawn to appear. It was bitterly cold and though we were all clad in warm clothing, the chill still crept into our bones making us extremely unhappy. We reached the 3810 metre high pass before the sun rose and got off the car to the sounds of a bird twittering away. We looked though our binoculars but just could not pinpoint the bird. Very Frustrating.
From prior research I had learnt that every Bhutanese emits the cry 'lea-gey lu' (victory to the gods) when he crosses this pass and I had every intention of following suit, but all I could achieve in the cold was a very hoarse grunt. The sun rose and immediately with the first light bird activity started. We could soon see Mt Jhomulhari and the adjacent Mt. Jhiku Drake glittering in the new sun.
The vegetation here was mostly dwarf Rhododendron and alpine meadows. Our mysterious twitterer turned out to be a very handsome Himalayan White-browed Rosefinch. The distant conifers held a pack of White-winged Grosbeaks, who eventually came close to the pass and the photographer duo of Ramki and Sumit pronounced themselves satisfied. Our guide, Tashi, had such an inscrutable face that it was very difficult to figure out what he was thinking and now at the top of pass, in a voice so deadpan, declared "the Blood Pheasants are coming" that I thought he said something innocuous like 'shall we have a cup of tea?' In any case the effect was electric as we dropped all and rushed to where he was standing and, lo and behold, a train of Blood Pheasants (image below) began to emerge. One by one they trooped out of the undergrowth like soldiers marching in a parade. For someone who had only seen these beauties in wistful dreams, this multitude of excess was unbelievable.
Cameras clicked incessantly as more and more appeared and I wondered if the entire worldwide population resided here. Our 'National Collective Happiness' knew no bounds!
In such circumstances Ramki is quite uncontrollable and constantly switches camera bodies, lenses, tripods and innumerable other gadgets in some kind of mechanical frenzy. His wife Swarna, not to be undone, incessantly fires instructions to him, earning her the sobriquet 'Director of Photography'. While Ramki mopped up these stunners, Sumit Himalayan Monal, females and I moved down the road, when some slight movement in the undergrowth, below the road, revealed three female Himalayan Monals
on the move. Frantic but silent arm-waving brought Ramki hotfooting and once again the frantic clicking was underway. We moved on down the path and as we turned the corner we espied a beautiful male Monal labouring his way up the barren slopes. I knew that Sumit ached to see one of these splendid birds and the look of pleasure on his face revealed that he had found finally found nirvana. But by the time Ramki and Swarna arrived, the bird had gone. Still in a daze we decided to breakfast and take a deep breath. The events of the morning had us completely astounded, and all this even before nine in the morning! In our excitement we had completely forgotten that we had dipped on the Satyr Tragopan, another elusive bird that was supposedly regular here. The bird that were omnipresent here, and indeed everywhere on our travels, was the Spotted Nutcracker.
While Tashi and Mangal unraveled the breakfast basket, our friend Sujan Chatterjee arrived with a bus load of birders that he had been escorting. We had met him the previous night and exchanged notes. His remark that on this particular trip he had no trouble in seeing all the difficult birds but the 'easy' ones had eluded him, turned out to be prophetic in our case as well, as a glance at our trip-list will reveal. We descended leisurely but by now the birding had slowed down and all we saw was a Common Buzzard, a Black Eagle, Rufous-vented, Coal and Grey-Crested Tits. A solitary Hoary-throated Barwing made an appearance, as did a pair of skulking Black-faced Laughingthrush. Swarna was the only one to see a Maroon-backed Accentor. The only true excitement was when Ramki and Swarna saw and photographed a beautiful male Red Crossbill.
Since I was nowhere in the vicinity, this made me very 'cross-billed' indeed!
We returned to Paro, and drove down the Paro Chu (river), where our attempts to find the Long-billed Plover came to naught, but low and behold the river was full of Ibisbill.This enigmatic winter visitor is so difficult to see in India, but here every few yards or so, was a pair pretending to be a small boulder. All of this along a major road, with large noisy SUVs hurtling down at considerable speed. Never in my life did I think that I would tire of seeing Ibisbills, but that is exactly what happened. To take your eyes off an Ibisbill to observe a Grey-backed Shrike was sacrilege but so it turned out. Sumit called to say that he had found a Red-billed Chough atop a traditional Bhutanese house and we trooped off to duly record it. Paro was also the only place where we saw three types of sparrows the House, Russet and the Eurasian!
A quick lunch and we were off on our way to our next stop Thimpu, the bustling capital and the home of the royal family. The journey was only a couple of hours and just before we reached, we stopped at the tanks of the sewage works and the few ducks there turned out to be Ruddy Shelducks, a few Gadwalls and an unexpected Ferruginous Pochard.
We checked into the Hotel Phuntshopelri, a swish hotel in the heart of town and decided to eat in and catch up on some much needed sleep. In any case, and as usual, we had an early start. We had hoped to meet our friend Sudhir Vyas, the Indian Ambassador, a friend and a great birder , who had very kindly given us suggestions for our trip. Unfortunately he was away.
We awoke before the hotel staff did, which meant that we carried our own baggage down and were soon on the way to the Cheri Valley. We left town and passed some defence installations and were surprised by the number of Spotted Nutcrackers flying overhead. A Blue-fronted Redstart sat on a post and the ubiquitous Hodgson's Redstarts were everywhere. We drove past the village of Begana and the road soon ended at a place called Dodina, where the track to the Cheri Goemba starts. The monks at this monastery look after the Gorals (a kind of mountain goat) and feed the pheasants who are exceeding tame. But like all good things in life, they come for a price. In this case you have to climb almost vertically for over an hour before you get to see the game. Our guide Tashi did not think this effort was worth to see a few birds, but it did not deter a slightly-built Bhutanese gentleman, from carrying a humongous cupboard on his back to be delivered to the holy men at the monastery. We crossed the Wang Chu by a lovely covered bridge and came to an open glade where breakfast was served, while Nutcrackers and Choughs soared overhead.
Bridge over Wang Chu
We decided to walk up a path that went gently uphill along the river when suddenly bird activity stated in earnest - Ramki started photographing a Hoary-throated Barwing, Swarna found a Rusty-flanked Treecreeper climbing a mud wall and Sumit discovered a flock, yes a flock of Green-Shrike Babblers. Hell broke loose with people running from one vantage point to the other. Not to be outdone a group of Golden-breasted Fulvettas made a fleeting and sudden appearance and a Little Forktail popped up on the river for good measure. A pair of Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrushes played hide and seek in the low shrubbery.
xhausted by so much activity we trooped back to the car and drove towards the Tango Goemba. Rufous-fronted Tits were everywhere, but were so nifty in their movement that even our intrepid duo of Ramki and Sumit failed to photograph them and their frustration was palpable and visible. I wished they would capture the object of their desire, and return to be normalcy again. Attempt after attempt was made, all unsuccessful. On one such occasion, Ramki scampered up a hillside, like a veritable goat and disappeared into the bushes. When he returned he very casually mentioned that while he had missed the said tits, he had photographed a Fire-tailed Myzornis (image left) from point-blank range. None of us believed him till we saw the extremely rare and exceeding beautiful bird on his camera screen. I seethed with jealousy and decided to buy myself a camera!
At the base of the Tango Goemba, is a circular path, which is more or less flat and we decided to walk along it disturbing a party of Olive-backed Pipits, Other than a troop of Langur monkeys, the only other creatures of interest were Ashy Drongo, Yellow-bellied Fantail, a Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush, the diminutive Yellow-browed Tit and Rufous-fronted Tits, which Sumit managed to finally photograph. We returned to Thimpu, and had lunch in the pleasant 'Seasons' Restaurant, where Ramki insisted on Ema Datse with his pizza. We collected our inner-line permits, changed our money and were on our way to Punakha, the only place where Sumit had, very kindly, allowed us two nights.
We drove south to Simtokha before turning left on the East-West Highway. You know you have arrived at Dochu La pass by the presence of several hundred prayer flags and the 108 newly-built Chortens. The forests at this point are mostly Rhododendron with a few magnolias and it must make for a wondrous sight in spring when the trees are in full bloom. We peered unsuccessfully though the looming clouds for a glimpse of Bhutan's two highest mountains Gankhar Puensum (7541 m) and Kulha Gagri (7554 m) but had to be satisfied by the forests below that seemed to stretch forever. These forests change from Oak, Maple Pine to Hemlock, Alder, Fir and Cypress. The lower stretches have a fair amount of Bamboo as well. It is supposed to be a birding paradise, but our luck was out that gloomy day and we managed only a Great Barbet, a few Long-tailed Minivets, a gaggle of White-throated Laughingthrushes and a few far-flying Yellow-billed Blue Magpies.
The Hotel Zangdopelri seemed welcoming enough with our rooms and verandahs overlooking the city and the river. A Large Hawk Cuckoo called familiarly from the Blue Pines below. We dined late in the warm dining room as Sumit has authorized a later-than-usual start at seven. All night the Mountain Scops Owl called. Next morning when we gathered at the parking lot, the hotel's gardens were full of the commoner birds, which had eluded us so far, and we notched up Grey Treepie, Long-tailed Minivets, Oriental Magpie Robin, Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch, besides mynas and doves.
Sujan had told us about the Wallcreepers that frequented the retaining walls around the corner from the hotel. As soon as we arrived a splendid specimen put up an uninterrupted show for us. Ramki and Sumit came close to being run over several times by the constant traffic on the road as they photographed this little gem from all angles. The bird was still there when they finally gave up, beaming from ear to ear. We descended to town and crossed the Po Chu in search of one of our major target birds, the White-bellied Heron. Tashi's 'Bazaar Gossip" claimed that this range-restricted rarity had been seen a few kilometres downstream. We scoured the area, inch by inch, but this elusive bird was nowhere to be seen on either bank. We did see a feeding flock of Tibetan Siskins, a bird none of us seen hitherto, but it did not make up for our disappointment, neither did the several Ibisbills we saw. A few female kestrels, a couple of Blue-rock Thrushes and a family of Common Mergansers were the other birds of interest on this stretch. A Barking Deer, which had obviously come down to the river to drink kept us amused for some time.
Sujan had seen this heron a few days before on the other river Mo Chu, below the Punakha Dzong and this was where we headed. We repeated the exercise and ever bit was scanned carefully. A single Pallas's Gull was seen as were the Crested, Common and the White-throated Kingfishers, but not our quarry. Finally we reconciled to the fact that we would have to wait for another trip to see this long-necked bird and called off our search.
We stopped at a shady grove next to river and saw River Lapwings and low-flying Mergansers as we ate the first meal of the day. A Siberian Stonechat and a single Grey Bushchat were the only grassland birds on this sector.
We drove up the Mo Chu Valley (seeing both the Slaty-backed as well as Spotted Forktails) toward our next destination - the Jigme Dorji National Park's Trashithang forest. This bit of Bhutan's largest national park is mostly warm broad-leafed and very similar to the forests of North Bengal, with which we were familiar. A single Alpine Swift cruised above and a few Nepal House Martins were also circling. We managed to grab a quick look of the only Khalij Pheasant of the trip but unfortunately it did not turn out to be the all black moffiti. The first flycatchers appeared - Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher and Small Niltava. Rufous-capped Babblers, Blue-winged Minla, White-browed Fulvetta and Whiskered Yuhina were some of the birds seen while walking through the forest. But easily the highlight were a pair of Red-headed Trogons (female left) who sat a hundred feet apart but posed for us from ten feet away.
Says a lot for the Buddhist way of life!
We returned back to the Punakha Dzong area and gave it another 'once over' in the forlorn hope for the heron. Saw several Red-vented Bulbuls, Grey Wagtails and Scaly Munias instead! Back to the Hotel to imbibe a selection of the finest malts courtesy the duty free shop in Kolkata airport. Next morning we left early as we had to cover a long distance. The plan was to go to the Pele La area before backtracking a bit and reaching Phobjikha Valley in time to see the cranes.
We drove past Wangdue Phodrang towards Pele La, the pass that takes you over the Black Mountains and is the boundary between western and central Bhutan. This was as far east as we would go on this trip, but before that we had a date with another mysterious bird - the Yellow-rumped Honeyguide. When I was younger, I often postponed opportunities to trek hard in the upper reaches of Uttarakhand in Northern India to gee this sparrow-like bird. And I suddenly found myself older and unfit to undertake such arduous journeys forcing me to reconcile that I would have to dip on this bird in this lifetime. But Bhutan suddenly presented a possibility, and ergo I was a little tense on this leg of the journey. Tashi kept assuring me that the bird would be present, though he did add the proviso that the Giant Rock bees Apis dorsata themselves had abandoned the hives. When we drew up to the point on the bend of the road where the hives were, I could see that they were indeed abandoned and looked so unpromising that Sumit actually walked off down the road and I had to call him back to show him the bird, which sat perched on a small twig under the overhang. It looked so unremarkable from the distance that I wondered what the fuss was about. This was the kind of situation that Ramki truly loves, and now he sweet-talked Tashi to accompany him on a rock-climbing mission on a small track he found. Armed with his lenses, that are almost as big as him, he scrambled up the hillside till he was at eye level with the bird, who was completely unimpressed by such heroism. Occasionally it would hop on to the abandoned hives and take a mouthful of wax.
Ground frost covering the Pele La area
Regretfully we had to move on as we still had many miles to traverse and we travelled through changing landscapes and vegetation till we started a rather stiff climb to the pass. We came across black ice on the narrow road, which forced us to drive slowly. We stopped at a promising looking bend and played calls of different Parrotbills but I was the only one to have a fleeting glimpse of a Giant Parrotbill. Despite Pele La's reputation, there were very few bird around, other than the ubiquitous Rufous Sibias.
Some soaring Himalayan Griffons aside, a buzzard flew alongside and Sumit quickly pointedout that it was somewhat different from the earlier Himalayan Buzzards Buteo burmanicus that we had been seeing. The only catch was that there were no authentic records of Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus) from these parts. Subsequently the photographs were circulated and Sumit was proved correct, and an important record established.
We moved on, when a blood-stained man at the edge of the road hailed our car down and told us that his car had skidded and gone down the edge of the cliff and that everyone was gravely injured. Both Mangal and Tashi scampered down the steep escarpment and heroically rescued the injured. We managed to stop traffic on the road and everyone joined the rescue. An hour later the operation was completed and the injured sent off to the nearest hospital, where hopefully all survived. It was a very subdued party that turned back towards Gangtey in the Phobjikha Valley.
Dwarf bamboo covering Gangtey
The descent into the Phobjikha Valley below Gangtey is almost surreal with the entire area being covered in dwarf bamboo, beloved of the local Yaks. We did not see any parrotbills that are supposed to live in these bamboos, instead saw a distant White-winged Bushchat dart into the bushes. Not very satisfactory, but the land of the Black-necked Cranes lay ahead and we pushed on till we reached the village. We saw several of these rare cranes in the wetlands that form the base of the valley. Potato fields dotted the valley and form an important part of the local economy. We decided not to visit the Black-necked Crane Information Centre, preferring to hop across the small wet patches and take our photographs from there. In the event we counted about 70 of these long-legged birds, besides seeing a Hen Harrier (image above) hunt rodents below and a resting Grey Nightjar. The Dewachen Hotel turned out to be the best of the trip with real wood fires warming our cold and tired bones. We slept early as usual after an excellent meal in the warm dining room.
We decided to return to Pele La the next morning, which started promisingly with a pair of Darjeeling Woodpeckers, the only representative of the family in the entire trip. But that is where our luck ran out. Other than a pair of Snow Pigeons, a Eurasian Treecreeper , the usual tits, and a single White-browed Rosefinch, there was precious little to see. Reluctantly we turned back and started the long journey back to Thimpu, where we would spend the night. We returned to the Honeyguide spot where out star awaited us, this time a little lower on a mossy bank. Cameras clicked as if photographing a Bollywood nymphet, only that in this case it was a male. While the photo session was in progress, Swarna and I spent some time chasing a Pygmy Wren Babbler and a few Black-throated Tits.
Kula Gangri range from Dochu La
A little down the road, we ran into a spectacular mixed hunting flock with included Red-billed Leiothrix, Red-tailed Minla and Nepal, White-browed, Golden-breasted and Rufous-winged Fulvettas. A Cutia showed up in the distance. A Mountain Hawk Eagle caused momentary excitement, but a Collared Owlet, within touching distance was the star of the day. Back safely in Thimpu we decided to celebrate our last night in Bhutan by going to the Zone Bar, where an excellent dinner was had. Ramki announced in a clear placid voice that he had decided to leave at 3 am to Chele La to give the Blood Pheasants another go, before meeting us at the airport at ten in the morning. His long suffering but faithful wife agreed to accompany him, while Sumit and I left at a more human hour of seven. This would give us an hour or so to look for the Solitary Snipe in the marshy bogs of the Paro Chu. The snipe we couldn't find but we did see the rarest of crakes - the Black-tailed!
What a way to end the trip.
We met at the airport at the appointed time, to discover that our flight had been cancelled! But what followed is another story and must wait another day.
© Bikram Grewal 2008