Druk Yul, or “Land of the Thunder Dragon,” is the remote Himalayan kingdom we know as Bhutan. Nestled deep in the heart for the Himalaya, wedged between two giant and populous neighbors, the country has retained much of its historic culture, its centuries-old rituals, and its fascinating heritage. Isolated by some of the highest mountain ranges on earth, Buddhist Bhutan is still poorly known in the West. Although most of it is now open to foreigners, tourist quotas are still restricted, and few travelers—and even fewer birdwatchers—have had first-hand experience of this unique and diverse country. On this tour we’re sure to see birds in abundance, plus breath-taking scenery as we travel across almost the entire country. Over 70 percent of the land surface is forested, and over 600 species have so far been recorded in Bhutan so far; among them are more than 30 new species our tours have added to the country’s list, including Rusty-bellied Shortwing and Hodgson’s Bushchat. A significant number of species, including Satyr Tragopan, Blood Pheasant, Himalayan Monal, Yellow-throated Fulvetta, Fire-tailed Myzornis, and Wedge-billed, Long-billed, and Bar-winged Wren-Babblers, are easier to see here than anywhere else on earth. And Bhutan is one of very few accessible places to see several others, such as Ward’s Trogon, Yellow-vented Warbler, Blue-fronted Robin, and White-naped Yuhina. Even more, perhaps, than other countires, fabulous Bhutan fires the enthusiasm of all who have visited it, leaving them with a sense of privilege and a longing to return. This will be the eleventh WINGS tour of Bhutan.
Participants should arrive in Delhi no later than this evening. Night in Delhi.
We’ll catch a very early morning flight to Paro, Bhutan’s only airport. Our route parallels the mighty Himalayan mountain chain, and if the weather is good we should see Mount Everest. After clearing immigration we’ll drive east through an enchanting valley with gaily decorated shingle-roofed houses and a willow-fringed river. Red-billed Choughs are quite common in this valley, and as we head east we’ll stop to search for Black-tailed Crake, Ibisbill, Wallcreeper and Brown Dipper. With luck we might encounter a regional specialty such as Rufous-fronted Tit. We’ll spend the night in Thimpu, Bhutan’s delightful capital.
We’ll head east out of Thimpu and up onto the western slopes of the Dochu La, the first of a series of high-altitude road passes that we’ll explore. Entering the pristine mixed forests of hemlock, fir, oak, magnolias, and rhododendrons, we should see a wealth of birds, including some species-rich feeding flocks. Quarrelsome Nutcrackers are common, and past highlights have included a skulking Hill Partridge, a Satyr Tragopan, a Golden Bush Robin, an immaculate Cutia, a Brown Parrotbill, and even the gorgeous Fire-tailed Myzornis. Most of our birding on this tour is from the roads, which are well paved and almost lacking in traffic. Today, however, we’ll venture offroad onto a trail that enables us to explore the forest more thoroughly. On several recent tours we’ve even managed to have excellent views of Ward’s Trogon, one of Bhutan’s premier avian prizes. Night near Punakha.
From our base at a splendid, traditionally decorated hotel near Punakha, the former capital of Bhutan, we’ll explore the braided channels of the Mo Chhu River and its bird-rich subtropical forests. Our route will take us past the spectacular Punakha Dzong. We should see an impressive array of species here, and on several occasions in the past these have included a White-bellied Heron, one of Bhutan’s rarest birds. We’re sure to encounter several parties of brightly colored minivets and noisy Striated Laughingthrushes, and we may also see more Ibisbills. A whole host of forest species, such as Bay Woodpecker, Red-headed Trogon, and Wedge-tailed Pigeon, waits to be discovered. Fire-capped Tit breeds here, as do White-gorgeted Flycatcher and the rare Yellow-vented Warbler. We’ll also search for a variety of skulkers, including Lesser Shortwing, Spotted and Pygmy Wren-Babblers, and two of Bhutan’s three species of tesia. In the afternoon we hope to be able to go inside Punakha Dzong, a fabulous fortified monastery that’s still home to many hundred monks. Night near Punakha.
Continuing east, past the smaller Wangdi Dzong, we’ll make a series of brief stops to scan the braided river channel. In the past we’ve seen Pallas’s Gull and Pallas’s Fishing Eagle here and have added a number of other species to the Bhutanese list. We’ll also check forest edges and explore some of the small patches of cultivation. We’ll enter productive forest near the end of our journey, where we’ll stop to look for species such as Blood Pheasant, Satyr Tragopan, and the majestic Himalayan Monal. Spotted Laughingthrush, Yellowish-bellied Bush-Warbler, Rusty-flanked Treecreeper, White-browed Bush Robin, and White-winged Grosbeak also occur here. Night in Gangtey, in the heart of the Phobjika Valley.
Leaving Gangtey we’ll follow the twisting road up over the Pele La pass and into Central Bhutan. A stand of ringal bamboo extends for about three miles below the pass, and we’ll search here for specialties such as Great and Brown Parrotbills and Golden-breasted Fulvetta, surely one of the world’s most attractive passerines. Night in Trongsa.
From Trongsa we’ll continue east, heading up and over the bamboo-thronged Yotong La into the first of the four Bumthang valleys. The scenery suddenly changes to broad grassy valleys and rolling hillsides covered in spruce and fir, and the avifauna changes equally abruptly. Nutcrackers can be common, though we’ll have to spend a little more time searching for the region’s real specialties: Slender-billed Scimitar Babbler, White-browed and Rufous-breasted Bush Robins, Dark-rumped Rosefinch, and Fulvous, Brown, and Great Parrotbills. Night in Jakar.
We’ll start early today, continuing our circuit east and searching for pheasants, which could include Monal, Satyr Tragopan, and Blood Pheasant. Eventually we’ll cross the Thrumsing La, at 12,465 feet Bhutan’s highest road pass. The road then plunges dramatically into rich semi-tropical rainforest, taking us onto the Lingmethang road, perhaps Asia’s premier birding road. Many of Bhutan’s most sought-after birds can be found here, including Chestnut-breasted Partridge, Ward’s Trogon, the majestic Rufous-necked Hornbill, Blue-naped Pitta, Blue-fronted Robin, and Sikkim Wedge-billed, Long-billed, and Bar-winged Wren-Babblers. Accommodation nearby is spartan, so we’ve opted to camp. Our first night “under canvas” will be near Sengor, in modern, spacious walk-in tents equipped with comfortable camp beds; the tents will be set up for us by our Bhutanese crew.
We’ll spend these days exploring the fabulously lush primary forests near Lingnmethang in search of the area’s specialties. We’re sure to see many new birds, and while not all of them are rare, many, such as Slender-billed and Coral-billed Scimitar-Babblers, Scaly and Blue-winged Laughingthrushes, Greater Rufous-headed Parrotbill, Broad-billed Warbler, White-naped Yuhina, and Rufous-throated Wren-Babbler are poorly known and unfamiliar to most birders. Nights camping.
We’ll leave our Yongkola campsite to head back up and over the mighty Thrumsing La. Night in Jakar.
This will be our longest driving day of the tour, taking us from Jakar back over the Yotong La to Trongsa before we head south down the Zhemgang road to our campsite near Tingtibi. Our main focus at the start of our journey will be the rare and little-known Yellow-rumped Honeyguide, but we should also see a number of other birds, perhaps including Little Forktail, Large Niltava, or Russet Bush Warbler. The entire length of the spectacularly forested valley is also good for the endangered Golden Langur monkey. We’ve seen Beautiful Nuthatch at several sites on the lower Zhemgang road, and we’ll spend time searching for this magnificent creature. Our campsite, right in the heart of superb forest, is at one of the lowest altitudes that we visit; species encountered here on recent tours include Chestnut-breasted Partridge, Violet Cuckoo, Pin-tailed Green Pigeon, Rufous-necked Hornbill, and Cutia. Rufous-faced Warbler is also quite common, and we stand a chance of encountering the rare White-bellied Heron and possibly Collared Treepie.
We’ll have another full day to explore the rich forests around Tingtibi. Night camping.
We’ll wind our way south to our next base in southeastern Bhutan. Our journey takes us through villages, across forest-covered passes, and down spectacular river valleys. Only recently opened to foreigners, this area of central Bhutan remains ornithologically poorly known. We’ll make several exploratory birding stops amid superb forest before reaching our guest house in Gelephu, a bustling border town lying at the junction of the Himalayas and the Brahmaputra flood plain.
Spending a full day in the heart of prime low-altitude forest around Gelephu will provide us with opportunities to study the birds of this rich biotope. As so often on this tour we’ll take breakfast and lunch in the field. Today’s key species will include Wreathed Hornbill, Mountain Imperial and Pin-tailed Green Pigeons, Whistling Hawk-cuckoo, Violet Cuckoo, Long-tailed Broadbill, Sultan Tit and Rufous-necked Laughingthrush. Night at Gelephu.
We’ll leave Gelephu and leave Bhutan early today for the drive south to Assam, India, and on to Gauhati. We’ll make several brief stops along the way; we’re sure to see several Lesser Adjutants and possibly Greater Adjutant. Night in Gauhati.
Highlights of a morning’s birding around Gauhati could include Small Pratincole, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Citrine Wagtail, Rusty-rumped Warbler, and Striated Grassbird. After birding, we’ll transfer to the airport, arriving in plenty of time to catch our flight back to Delhi, where we’ll have a leisurely dinner before transferring to the international airport for the late evening flight home.