2007 BHUTAN TOUR
We were driving slowly along when our driver, Sangay, and I simultaneously spotted a pheasant in the short grass next to the road about 30 meters ahead. Tragopan! A male! Sangay stopped the bus immediately and we all aimed our binoculars. Initially there was some shuffling about as the folks in the back of the bus maneuvered to get a clear view. Then we settled into an unobstructed view of one of nature’s most beautiful creations. At first, the bird was a little nervous about our presence, but soon settled down and resumed feeding in a leisurely fashion, showing his spectacular red plumage at every angle for about 10 minutes. We could even see the tips of the brilliant cobalt blue “horns” on his nape. Several folks managed to set up a scope in the bus for an even closer look. Eventually, another vehicle came and the tragopan ambled off the road and up the slope. WOW! This had been our most extended view of this species so far, on a trip that had given us a record-breaking total of 11 tragopan sightings: 7 adult males, 1 subadult male and 3 females. Add on excellent views of a male and a female of the superb Himalayan Monal, 40+ Blood Pheasants (some as close as 5 meters), 9 Kalij Pheasants, and glimpses at Hill and Chestnut-breasted Partridges and you have a terrific chicken line-up.
In 2004, we had the great good fortune and thrill of seeing 3 White-bellied Herons, an endangered species which is difficult to see because of its restricted range and rarity. In both 2005 and 2006, we checked out the site but the herons visited infrequently and we failed to see them. This year we were privileged to be able to spend nearly an hour watching two of these huge herons doing a variety of behaviors: loafing, fishing and flying. One of them swallowed a large fish which got stuck in his upper neck. It was fascinating to watch his neck-stretching effort to get the fish down, as well as the very long stretched-out neck with a lump in it as he flew. It was getting dark, so we had to leave before he succeeded.
2006 BHUTAN TOUR
(8 - 30 April)
As we rounded a bend on our bus, John Hardister spotted a male Satyr Tragopan in a gully above the road. We asked the driver to stop the bus and all of us sat transfixed as we watched this spectacular, vivid red pheasant walk slowly up the gully and perch on a rock in full view at only 60 meters distance. WOW! He stood there looking at us for a minute or so and then slowly walked up into the bamboo and disappeared, leaving us all breathless. This was the best of 5 good tragopan sightings (3 males and 2 females) from the bus along the road. It was a great pheasant year, with 7 excellent Himalayan Monal sightings (5 males and 2 females) and an incredible 70 Blood Pheasants at close range from the bus in one day. Also seen were 14 Kalij Pheasants and the Hill and Chestnut-breasted Partridges.
Other great sightings were: a close pair of Black-tailed Crakes in the open; an extended view of a nearby Solitary Snipe from the bus; several fine Ibisbills, including 2 week-old chicks; 3 Chestnut-winged Cuckoos; 5 owls seen, including a lengthy and superb scope view of a pair of Tawny Fish-Owls at only 60 meters; a fine male Ward’s Trogon; all 4 bush-robins in one day; 5 scimitar-babblers (including Coral-billed and Slender-billed); all 7 possible wren-babblers (including Long-billed, Rufous-throated, Bar-winged, Spotted and Wedge-billed); 14 laughingthrushes (including Rufous-chinned, Spotted, Grey-sided, Blue-winged and Scaly); Red-faced Liocichla; Silver-eared Mesia; Red-billed Leiothrix; Cutia; Black-headed Shrike-Babbler; Golden-breasted Fulvetta, Fire-tailed Myzornis; Great, Brown and Black-throated Parrotbills; all 3 tesias; Broad-billed and Rufous-faced Warblers; Sapphire, Pale Blue and Pygmy Blue Flycatchers; Fire-capped Tit; a superb pair of Beautiful Nuthatches; 2 male Yellow-bellied Flowerpeckers; Tibetan Serin; 5 Crimson-browed Finches; 17 Scarlet Finches; all 3 grosbeaks; and a pair of Gold-naped Finches.
There were more interesting species: Red-crested Pochard, Pallas’s Fish-Eagle, Himalayan Griffon, Himalayan Buzzard, Rufous-bellied Eagle, Mountain Hawk-Eagle, Eurasian Hobby, Eurasian Woodcock, 120 Snow Pigeons, 30 Speckled Wood-Pigeons, Pin-tailed and Wedge-tailed Pigeons, Hodgson’s Hawk-Cuckoo, Lesser Cuckoo, Asian Emerald Cuckoo, Mountain and Collared Scops-Owls, Red-headed Trogon, Crested Kingfisher, Blue-bearded Bee-eater, 15 sightings of Rufous-necked Hornbill, Great Hornbill, Eurasian Wryneck, Long-tailed Broadbill, White-throated Bulbul, Alpine Accentor, Plain-backed and Black-throated Thrushes, 2 barwings, 4 fulvettas, all 7 yuhinas, Russet Bush-Warbler, Grey-hooded and White-spectacled Warblers, Black-faced Warbler, Goldcrest, Ferruginous, Slaty-blue and White-gorgetted Flycatchers, 3 niltavas, Rufous-fronted and Sultan Tits, Fire-tailed Sunbird, Plain Mountain-Finch, 4 rosefinches, Red Crossbill, and Green Magpie.
2005 BHUTAN TOUR
(8 April-1 May)
Simultaneously, our driver, Sangay, and I spotted an adult male Himalayan Monal in the early morning light about 100 meters ahead of the bus. Sangay moved the bus forward slowly and cautiously. Unfortunately the monal slipped behind some low vegetation and disappeared uphill. A few minutes later, several of us spotted the pheasant briefly amidst some dense vegetation before it disappeared entirely. We opted to move on and try to find another one. Shortly thereafter, we briefly saw another male monal before it too disappeared. Farther along the road, another Himalayan Monal was sighted uphill from us. It too soon disappeared behind a rise. We watched the slope above the rise. Finally Marian Metson spotted the monal far to the right and Sangay backed the bus up to where we hoped we could get a better look. To our great relief and satisfaction, it was soon seen perched atop a stump, watching us at about 60 meters in the open, where it stayed for a few minutes, allowing all a superb scope view of this spectacular pheasant. A little later we saw a fourth male monal from the bus on the slope below us.
An hour later on the same morning we heard a Satyr Tragopan about 200 meters away, downslope. We walked to a point on the road closest to the call, played a tape and waited, and waited, and waited. Suddenly about 80 meters below us the tragopan was spotted as it slowly moved into the open. We set up the scope and had five minutes of marvelous scope views of this otherworldly brilliant red creature. Wow! We had seen the two big ones among Bhutan's pheasants in a mere two hours. Add to that our lengthy scope watch of a pair of Chestnut-breasted Partridges, some 38 Blood Pheasants (some as close as 4 meters), and 10 Kalij Pheasants (several quite close at length) and we had a lot to be pleased about in the chicken department.
Other of our more interesting sightings were: Pallas's Fish-Eagle, Himalayan Griffon, Black Eagle, Mountain Hawk-Eagle, Black-tailed Crake, Ibisbill, Snow Pigeon, Speckled Wood-Pigeon, White-throated Needletail, a superb male Ward's Trogon below eye level at only 6 meters, Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Rufous-necked Hornbill, Yellow-rumped Honeyguide, Pale-headed Woodpecker, Long-tailed Broadbill, Alpine Accentor, Hume's Lark, all 4 bush-robins, White-tailed and Blue-fronted Robins, Little and Spotted Forktails, 5 scimitar-babblers (including Coral-billed and Slender-billed), all 7 possible wren‘ babblers (including Long-billed, Rufous-throated, Bar-winged, Spotted, and Wedge-billed -- all seen close and well except for Wedge-billed), 13 laughingthrushes (including Rufous-chinned, Spotted, Grey-sided, Rufous-necked, Blue-winged, and Scaly -- all seen well), Red-faced Liocichla, Silver-eared Mesia, Red-billed Leiothrix, Cutia, Black-headed and Green Shrike-Babblers, 2 barwings, all 3 minlas, 5 fulvettas (including Golden-breasted and Yellow-throated), all 7 yuhinas, Fire-tailed Myzornis, 4 parrotbills (Great, Brown, Black-throated and Blue-spectacled), all 3 tesias, White-spectacled, Grey-cheeked, Broad-billed, Rufous-faced and Black-faced Warblers, Pygmy Blue Flycatcher, 10 tits (including Rufous-fronted, Fire-capped and Sultan), Rusty-flanked Treecreeper, Yellow-bellied Flowerpecker, Gould's, Green-tailed and Fire-tailed Sunbirds, Crested Bunting, Yellow-breasted Greenfinch, 4 rosefinches, Scarlet Finch, all 3 grosbeaks, Gold-naped Finch, Maroon Oriole, and Gold-billed and Green Magpies. Our mammal list included 3 species of langurs and several sightings of Goral. Bhutan continues to be one of our most enjoyable and popular trips.
2004 BHUTAN TOUR
We were driving along when suddenly a male Satyr Tragopan was spotted walking down the road embankment, below the bus. Several participants got a brief look at it before it disappeared into the forest. We quickly got out of the bus, but were unable to see it again. Later in the day, we spotted another male tragopan at the road's edge which also quickly disappeared into the forest. Again we quickly got out of the bus and several of us got glimpses of the male and his mate. However, some participants had yet to get even a glimpse at a tragopan and were frustrated at these brief appearances. Soon another tragopan was spotted at the road's edge as we drove slowly and hopefully along. The driver stopped the bus abreast of the bird which was only 18 meters from the bus in full view. It's a male! Wow! The tragopan just stood there watching us, shuffling a bit, giving us a spectacular look at this unbelievably beautiful red pheasant. After a couple of minutes of our soaking up his beauty, he walked out of sight leaving us all stunned and satiated. That was 4 tragopons in one day, one more than our previous tour total. But that wasn't the end of it. We later had 4 more tragopan sightings, 3 males and a female, all from the road, 2 of them also lengthy sightings of a male from the bus. It was clearly a tragopan year with 8 sightings for the tour. For the first time, we actually saw more tragopans than we heard. Add to that an unprecedented 15-minute scope view of a Chestnut-breasted Partridge at 80 meters, 32 Blood Pheasants in one day, all along the road and close to the bus, a magnificent male Himalayan Monal feeding unconcernedly at about 60 meters distance while we watched from the bus and 23 Kalij Pheasant sightings and we had a superb year for chickens.
The other exciting species of Bhutan were also in evidence, such as: 3 White-bellied Herons, observed well both feeding and in flight, extended and close views of 3 Black-tailed Crakes, an excellent study of a pair of Ibisbills, a fine Chestnut-winged Cuckoo, marvelous close flybys of White-throated Needletails, brief but good looks at Ward's Trogon, Rufous-necked Hornbill, fine close-ups of Slender billed Scimitar-Babbler, extended looks at Black-headed Shrike-Babbler, great roadside views of a pair of Fire-tailed Myzornis building a nest, extended scope looks at a Beautiful Nuthatch, 3 Crimson-browed Finches, and that very cooperative Green Magpie.
A few of the other highlights were: Black and Booted Eagles, Mountain Hawk-Eagle, Speckled Wood-Pigeon, Hodgson's Hawk-Cuckoo, Himalayan Cuckoo, Asian Emerald Cuckoo, Crested Kingfisher, Great Hornbill, Crimson-breasted and Bay Woodpeckers, White-throated Bulbul, Alpine Accentor, all 4 bush-robins, 3 forktails, Plain-backed Thrush, Rufous-throated and Bar-winged Wren-Babblers, 12 laughingthrushes (including Rufous-chinned, Spotted, Rufous-necked, Blue-winged and Scaly), Red faced Liocichla, Silver-eared Mesia, Red-billed Leiothrix, Cutia, Green Shrike-Babbler, 2 barwings, all 3 minlas, 5 fulvettas (including Golden-breasted and Yellow-throated), all 7 yuhinas, Great, Brown, Black throated and Blue-spectacled Parrotbills, Chestnut-headed and Grey-bellied Tesias, Yellow-vented, Golden-spectacled, Olive-crowned, White-spectacled, Grey-cheeked, Broad-billed, Rufous-faced and Black-faced warblers, Slaty-blue and Sapphire Flycatchers, Small Niltava, Pale Blue and Pygmy Blue Flycatchers, Rufous-fronted and Sultan Tits, Rusty-flanked Treecreeper, Gould's, Green-tailed, Black throated and Fire-tailed Sunbirds, Crested Bunting, Tibetan Serin, Yellow-breasted Greenfinch, Plain Mountain-Finch, 4 rosefinches, Scarlet Finch, Red-headed Bullfinch, and Collared and White-winged Grosbeaks. Among the more interesting mammals were Golden and Capped Langurs, Musk Deer, Goral, and Yellow-throated Martin. Our total of 270 bird species seen was somewhat lower than usual, due to early and unusual rains for the season. Fortunately, the high profile species that birders most want to see were quite cooperative this year.
2002 BHUTAN TOUR
We were walking along Bhutan's main east-west highway in a richly forested area in Thrumsingla National Park when a tragopan called nearby on the uphill side of the road. We all stopped and froze in our tracks as we searched for the sound's source. "I see the tragopan. It's about 3 meters up on that large moss-covered tree trunk that slants up to the right." It was a splendid male Satyr Tragopan, only about 40 meters away, watching us intently. Gradually all the group found the bird and gasped at its stunningly beautiful bright red plumage. Satisfied with his looks at us, the tragopan walked down the trunk and disappeared into the undergrowth. We watched gaps in the vegetation in hopes of seeing him again and soon were rewarded with several glimpses as he walked along, parallel with the road. Then the tragopan veered toward the road. I asked the group to freeze. We watched with baited breath as the dazzling pheasant emerged from the vegetation and walked slowly across the road only 20 meters from us. When he reached the other side, he began feeding on some fresh emerging green leaves, with no apparent concern for the group staring goggle-eyed at him. The vegetation was only a few centimeters high and the nearest cover was 20 meters away. For several minutes, this startling red vision filled our binoculars with a sight never to be forgotten, until the sound of an approaching bus caused him to amble off into the forest. He had been close enough that we could just see the tips of the fleshy cobalt blue horns protruding from his nape, from which the name tragopan is derived, i.e., "horns of Pan." We looked at each other in disbelief at our good fortune. Earlier that day we had seen 52 Blood Pheasants, in pairs or small flocks, all within 30 meters of the bus, and including several as close as 5 meters. A fine male Himalayan Monal at about 80 meters rounded out our trio of pheasant sightings for the day. Add to that another male and a female tragopan, two more male Himalayan Monals, 38 more Blood Pheasants and numerous Kalij Pheasants at close range and the trip added up to a visual feast. Hill and Chestnut-breasted Partridges were also seen to round out our galliform list.
A Hill Partridge came into view briefly before retreating back into the undergrowth. We were sitting in a magnificent forest on a 30° slope and decided to wait for a better look. As we were waiting, a Ward's Trogon called nearby. One series of notes from my tape recorder brought a fine male into view about 30 meters away, as well as his mate, 35 meters away. Both were partially obscured, so I played another series of notes. The male flew to a perch in the open only five meters directly above our heads, and proceeded to look us over for several minutes. We soaked up this rare bird's beauty. After a few minutes, he raised his tail as if to defecate, causing us to raise our hands above our faces in defense. However, he graciously lowered his tail without dropping any presents, and flew off. Even the birds are polite in Bhutan!
We were watching a pretty little White-gorgetted Flycatcher when a different song was heard nearby. It sounded like a Wedge-billed Wren-Babbler, so I played a previously recorded tape to him. After a few minutes, a Wedge-billed Wren-Babbler approached stealthily through the undergrowth. He moved quickly and it was difficult to get a good look at him. Finally he slowed down and perched only 3.5 meters away, in the open, where he proceeded to sing to us. We watched mesmerized as this rare and little known denizen of the eastern Himalayan forests serenaded us for about 5 minutes before continuing his route to inspect us. Eventually he perched at only 2 meters distance, before moving off. Wow! We had seen one fairly well a couple of days ago, but this was an every-feather view. Later in the day, I played a tape of the Long-billed Wren-Babbler and finally got a response. He came darting through the undergrowth and stopped for only seconds as he searched for the rival in his territory. Finally he settled in only 4 meters away in the open at the road's edge and sang for an extended period while we studied him at length. Later he moved to another perch at two meters and sang some more. This fellow was another great treat as it is one of the Eastern Himalayas' least-known babblers. Our total of 7 wren-babblers (including Rufous-throated, Bar-winged and Spotted) was the best ever.
This was one of our most successful and enjoyable Bhutan tours to date. We saw a total of 292 species of birds and had a very pleasant time doing so. Some of the other more interesting birds seen were: Pallas's Fish-Eagle, Himalayan Griffon, Mountain Hawk-Eagle, Black-tailed Crake, Ibisbill, Snow Pigeon, Speckled Wood-Pigeon, Asian Emerald Cuckoo, White-throated Needletail, Red-headed Trogon, Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Rufous-necked and Great Hornbills, Yellow-rumped Honeyguide, Speckled and White-browed Piculets, Alpine Accentor, White-browed Shortwing, Golden Bush-Robin, White-tailed and Blue-fronted Robins, 3 forktails, 4 scimitar-babblers (including Slender-billed), 14 laughingthrushes (including Rufous-chinned, Spotted, Grey-sided, Rufous-necked, Blue-winged and Scaly), Red-faced Liocichla, Silver-eared Mesia, Red-billed Leiothrix, Cutia, 4 shrike-babblers (including Black-headed and Green), 2 barwings, all 3 minlas, 5 fulvettas (including Golden-breasted and Yellow throated), 7 yuhinas, Fire-tailed Myzornis, 5 parrotbills (including Great, Brown, Fulvous and Black throated), all 3 tesias, 4 bush-warblers, White-spectacled, Grey-cheeked, Broad-billed, Rufous-faced and Black-faced Warblers, 18 flycatchers (including Feruginous, Slaty-backed, White-gorgetted, Slaty-blue, Sapphire, Pale Blue and Pygmy Blue), Rufous-fronted, Fire-capped, Yellow-cheeked and Sultan Tits, Rusty-flanked Treecreeper, Fire-tailed Sunbird, Crested Bunting, Tibetan Serin, Yellow-breasted Greenfinch, Crimson-browed and Scarlet Finches, Red-headed Bullfinch, Collared and Spot-winged Grosbeaks, Slender-billed Oriole, Gold-billed and Green Magpies, and Spotted Nutcracker. We also saw lots of the rare and local, endemic Golden Langurs.
While it's true that Bhutan can boast the extremely high percentage of area under forest of 70%, it is also unfortunately true that there is considerable destructive development along our road route. In particular, grazing by cattle is eliminating the undergrowth, and harvesting of bamboo is making several bamboo specialists difficult to find. Road improvement and widening is wrecking some habitat and degrading much. Thus while we'll have good birding for some years to come, if you wish to see Bhutan at its best, it might be sensible to not delay your visit for too long.
2001 BHUTAN TOUR
It was a bright, sunny morning in central Bhutan. We were walking along the forested highway when I spotted a Cutia at about 100 meters distance, moving away from us. I played a tape recording of its call. The Cutia was part of a sizable flock and soon the entire flock was converging on us. Closer and closer they came until they were bounding about in a large bush only 5 meters away and slightly below eye level. First the strikingly colored Cutia with its tiger-striped sides, then several of the exquisite male Short-billed Minivets, then a gorgeous male Gould's Sunbird, then Black-winged Cuckooshrikes, Green Shrike-Babbler, Chestnut-tailed and Red-tailed Minlas, Rufous Sibia, Whiskered and Rufous-vented Yuhinas, Ashy-throated, Grey-hooded and Chestnut-crowned Warblers, Black-throated Tit, Yellow-browed Tit and Fire-breasted Flowerpecker. The spectacular display of color and life at close range continued for about 10 minutes and to this day I am mystified as to why it occurred. The tape had only a scruffy Cutia recording on it. Why did all the other birds respond as if there were an owl or other predator threatening them? We'll never know, but we were terribly pleased that it happened.
Later in S.E. Bhutan we had a spectacular day which included great views of Rufous-necked Hornbill (extended scope look at 80 meters), Indian Cuckoo, Asian Emerald Cuckoo, Collared Owlet, Red-headed Trogon, Lesser Yellownape, Long-tailed Broadbill, Coral-billed Scimitar-Babbler, Blue-winged Laughingthrush, Red-faced Liocichla, Silver-eared Mesia, Rufous-backed Sibia, Black-chinned Yuhina, and 12 Scarlet Finches. Most spectacular of all was 10 minutes of watching a pair of Beautiful Nuthatches-wow! The following day we found a huge fruiting fig tree with Wreathed and Great Hornbills, and lots of Thick-billed, Pin-tailed, and Wedge-tailed Pigeons.
Pheasants were conspicuous this year with 6 Satyr Tragopans seen-2 adult males, 1 subadult male, and 3 females-all but one on or seen from the road. All 6 of the spectacular Himalayan Monals (4 males) were seen on or from the road as were the 34 Blood Pheasants and 7 Kalij Pheasants we saw. Hill and Chestnut-breasted Partridges gave us excellent views.
Other great birds seen were: Asian Openbill, Lesser Adjutant,
Besra, Rufous-bellied Eagle, 6 Black-tailed Crakes, 5 Ibisbills, Snow Pigeon,
77 Speckled Wood-Pigeons, Dark-rumped Swift, Ward's Trogon, Brown Tree-Pipit
(rare in Bhutan), White-throated Bulbul, Alpine Accentor, Golden Bush-Robin,
a White-tailed Robin in the road, Blue-fronted Redstart, 4 forktails, Black-throated
Thrush, 5 scimitar-babblers (including Slender-billed), 5 wren-babblers (including
Rufous-throated, Bar-winged and Spotted), 12 laughingthrushes (including Rufous-chinned,
Spotted, Grey-sided, Rufous-necked and Scaly), Red-billed Leiothrix, Black-eared
Shrike-Babbler, 2 barwings, 5 fulvettas (including Golden-breasted and Yellow-throated),
6 yuhinas, 12 of the exquisite Fire-tailed Myzornis, 6 parrotbills (Great, Brown,
Fulvous, Black-throated, Blue-spectacled and Grey-headed), all 3 tesias, 5 bush-warblers
(including Russet), Yellow-vented, Broad-billed and Black-faced Warblers, Ferruginous,
White-gorgetted, Pale Blue and Pygmy Blue Flycatchers, 3 niltavas, 10 tits (including
Sultan), Yellow-vented Flowerpecker, 6 sunbirds, Grey-headed Bullfinch, Collared
Grosbeak, Gold-naped Finch, White-vented Myna, and Green Magpie. We saw a total
of 301 species in Bhutan with an additional 36 in India. The best mammal sighting
was a Musk Deer at 12 meters at length in the scope. A great trip!
2000 BHUTAN TOUR
We were driving back to our hotel along the river after a very pleasant day's birding upriver. A bird was spotted on the river. Upon stopping, we found it was a small gull. It immediately took flight, revealing the wing pattern of an immature Black-headed Gull. It settled down quickly and we decided to check it out carefully. Curiously it had no blackish patch on the ear coverts and the bill was long and slender. The bird was rather distant and soon drifted out of sight behind a bluff. We ran downriver to get a better view. The gull was refound in the near shore shallows of an island about 80 meters offshore. After 15 minutes of study of the bird in the scope, it became clear that we had found a Slender-billed Gull, a first for Bhutan, and a lifer for most of our group.
Later in the tour, we were driving along when I spotted a male Himalayan Monal on the slope above us. We stopped the bus immediately and soaked up this iridescent beauty. He was about 150 meters away and very absorbed in digging out some roots. His distraction allowed us to get out of the bus and set up the scopes for a visual feast. He remained in the open long enough for everyone to get a superb view. The day before we'd seen 18 Blood Pheasants, some quite close (12 meters) for soul satisfying looks. Also seen, but not by everyone were: a fine male Satyr Tragopan, several Kalij Pheasants, and Chestnut-breasted, Hill and Rufous-throated Partridges.
Other highlights were: Red-faced Liocichla, Blue-winged Laughingthrush and Silver-eared Mesia, all in superb prolonged scope views in the late afternoon sun; three delightful Black-throated Parrotbills at 4 meters and flying within 1 meter of us in response to the tape; a Spotted Laughingthrush only 5 meters away in the open; 2 White-backed (Kessler's) Thrushes and 2 Eurasian Blackbirds in a flock---left over from last winter's thrush invasion, which brought the Eurasian Blackbird to the Bhutan list for the first time; those beautiful male Scarlet Finches in the bright early morning light; getting most of the participants a view of the exceedingly furtive Blue-fronted Robin; the Ibisbill seen close and well; 11 laughingthrushes (including Rufous-chinned [scope views!], Scaly and Grey-sided); a flock of 40 Red-billed Leiothrix; a fine Ward's Trogon in the scope; good looks at the Yellow-rumped Honeyguide; excellent close views of all 5 of the small wren-babblers (including Bar-winged, Spotted and Rufous-throated); 5 Scimitar-Babblers (including great close-ups of the Coral-billed and Slender-billed) several Gold-naped and Crimson-browed Finches; a Bay Woodpecker in the open at only 6 or 7 meters; a single Greater Adjutant; good looks at Besra and Mountain Hawk-Eagle; excellent close-up of Solitary Snipe in a wet area right next to the road, spotted by our driver; a Great Gull; Speckled Wood-Pigeon; Violet and Asian Emerald Cuckoos; good sightings of Large and Hodgson's Hawk-Cuckoos, and Indian, Lesser, Oriental and Common Cuckoos; a nice close-up fly-by of Dark-rumped Swift; a Ruddy Kingfisher; great looks at Rufous-necked Hornbill; 5 barbets; Eurasian Wryneck; 8 woodpeckers; 4 minivets; 2 accentors; a beautiful male Golden Bush-Robin; White-tailed Robin; 4 forktails; 2 Red-throated Thrushes; nice looks at Cutia; 4 shrike-babblers (including Black-headed); all 3 minlas; 2 barwings; 5 fulvettas (including Golden-breasted and Yellow-throated); 6 yuhinas; Fire-tailed Myzornis; 4 Parrotbills; all 3 tesias; 4 bush-warblers; 9 Phylloscopus warblers (including Yellow-vented); 2 of the recently split Golden-spectacled Warbler complex; Broad-billed, Black-faced and Grey-cheeked Warblers; Sapphire and Pygmy Blue Flycatchers; Rufous-fronted, Fire-capped and Sultan Tits; 4 sunbirds (including Gould's and Fire-tailed); Cresting Bunting; Tibetan Serin; 2 bullfinches; 2 grosbeaks; and Maroon Oriole.
Our total seen list was 338 species. While Bhutan has one of the largest total forested areas (70%) of any country in the world, it must be sadly noted that habitat destruction along the road we use for birding is continuing unabated and actually accelerating. Thus several species we saw easily on our first tour 5 years ago (i.e. Pale-headed Woodpecker and White-hooded Babbler) can no longer be found on our route and others (e.g. Kalij Pheasant) are becoming difficult to see. All of Bhutan's development is taking place along its roads. This includes numerous cattle (apparently raised for fertilizer) which are destroying the undergrowth. Thus while the birding is still excellent and the country beautiful, it won't last forever. If you wish to see the best of Bhutan on a bus/road-based (not trekking) tour, best not wait too many years.
We were driving in our Toyota Coaster (bus) along a stretch of road we knew to be good for pheasants. Unfortunately there were heavy low clouds, meaning fog, and visibility often limited to the road itself. It was worrisome but we moved on slowly. Suddenly there was a pheasant on the road ahead. By the time we stopped it was only about 50 ft. from us. Male Blood Pheasant! We soaked up this striking green, grey and red creature through our binoculars. Soon he was joined by his mate. They eyed us nervously, taking small steps but not leaving our view. Then after about 5 minutes the male started walking toward the bus. At about 3 ft. from the front of the bus, he looked us over carefully for a couple of minutes before walking off with his lady. Wow!
We moved on. About 15 minutes later, we spotted another pheasant at the edge of the road 60 yards ahead of us. The bus stopped quickly and we raised our binoculars. Male Himalayan Monal! The bird was stretched up tall, watching us carefully. We watched, enthralled, at the spectacular array of colors on this bird. Slowly, imperceptibly over a period of 10 minutes, he relaxed, settling down. Meanwhile, a second male joined him and we then had to choose which of these fellows to watch. After a few minutes they' started shuffling around, giving us yet more aspects of them to view, before suddenly launching into the air and gliding into the valley below. Breathtaking!
Later on we got a brief look at another group of 3 monals and within a couple of hours, we had seen 27 Blood Pheasants, some quite close. These great sightings were possible because hunting is not only illegal but rarely done in Bhutan, making the birds - much less afraid of people than in most parts of the world. ¡ Since we had already had good views of the Satyr Tragopan and Kalij Pheasants earlier in the tour, our pheasant list was full. We also had close good observations of 2 separate pairs of the little known ' Chestnut-breasted Partridge (the most beautiful of the Arborophila partridges), as well as the Hill Partridge. We also saw the Rufous-throated Partridge.
Then there were those 2 close Ibisbills in the scope. The magnificent Rufous-necked Hornbills were seen very well several times. Ward's Trogan performed beautifully as did the Dark-rumped Swifts at their traditional nest site. Several of the exquisite Fire-tailed Myzornis were seen, several quite close.
A total of 349 species were seen on this trip, including: Lesser Adjutant, Mountain Hawk- and Rufous-bellied Eagles, Snow Pigeon, Speckled Wood-Pigeon, Pin-tailed and Wedge-tailed Pigeons, Hodgson's Hawk-Cuckoo, Asian Emerald- and Violet Cuckoos, White-throated Needletail, Red-headed Trogon, Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Wreathed and Great Hornbills, 5 barbets, Speckled and White-browed Piculets, Rufous-bellied and Crimson-breasted Woodpeckers, Darjeeling and Bay Woodpeckers, Long-tailed Broadbill, Hooded Pitta, Nepal House-Martin, Blyth's Pipit, Himalayan Bulbul, Golden Bush-Robin, Blue-fronted and White-tailed Robins, 4 forktails, Orange-headed Thrush, Long-billed and Black-throated Thrushes, Coral-billed and Slender-billed Scimitar-Babblers, all 5 of the small wren-babblers (including Bar-winged, Spotted and Rufous-throated), 12 laughingthrushes (including Grey-sided, Spotted, Rufous-chinned, Blue-winged and Scaly), Red-faced Liocichla, Silver-eared Mesia, Red-billed Leiothrix, Cutia, 4 shrike-babblers (including Black-headed and Green), 2 barwings, all 3 minlas, 5 fulvettas (including Golden-breasted and Yellow-throated), all 7 yuhinas, 4 parrotbills (including Fulvous), all 3 tesias, 4 ' bush-warblers (including Russet), 10 Phylloscopus warblers, Broad-billed and Black-faced Warblers, 16 flycatchers (including Sapphire, Pygmy Blue, Ferruginous, and White-gorgetted), Asian Paradise-Flycatcher, Rufous-fronted Tit, Sultan Tit, 3 treecreepers (including Rusty-flanked), Yellow-bellied Flowerpecker, 6 sunbirds (including Fire-tailed), Crested Bunting, 3 rosefinches, Scarlet Finch, and Gold-naped Finch. It was a grand trip with great birds, good company and fine hospitality.
1998 BHUTAN TOUR
We had gone as far as we could easily go on a steep muddy trail and I played the Satyr Tragopan tape one last time before returning to the road. When the tape was finished, we waited for a response. So far, over several days, I had played the tape repeatedly in good areas with no response whatever. Suddenly, our local guide, who was standing a bit away from us, quietly indicated that he had seen something; whispered "tragopan," and pointed to a place only a few yards away. We froze and played the tape again and again. We saw and heard nothing. So we stepped off the trail and into the forest. Fortunately there was little undergrowth and the visibility was excellent. We walked a short distance in the direction we thought the tragopan had gone and I played the tape again. "There he is, behind us," came an urgent whisper. We all turned and several of us got quick glimpses as he walked out of sight. We moved to a better vantage point and I played the tape again. Soon we spotted him walking from left to right below us. He disappeared quickly and we moved a bit again, hoping to improve our view if he reappeared. He soon emerged and proceeded to walk in full view for about a minute to everyone's delight. His path took him through a patch of sunlight which just seemed to intensify the brilliant red of his plumage against a lush green background. The Satyr Tragopan is one of nature's most spectacular creations.
A few days later, we had good but distant scope views of the Beautiful Nuthatch. It was exciting and' satisfying but we wanted more, so we returned to the site two days later in hope of upgrading our look. There were no birds at all at the site, so we walked on to try to find this rare and little known bird. About a half kilometer away, we found a pair that allowed us to watch them at our leisure over a period of about twenty minutes at distances of 40-70 feet at and below eye level with our scopes. Wow! While the tragopan is spectacular, these little fellows are exquisite. We couldn't take our eyes away from them. The fine sky blue lines and edging on the black back are unique in the bird world. We were torn between the nuthatch and the tragopan as our bird of the trip.
Another candidate for best bird was the Blood Pheasant, of which we saw 42 in five separate flocks one day. We were able to watch them at length from our bus only 30-50 feet away. These are indeed strange, exotic creatures.
Our most interesting find was 2 Rufous-tailed Thrushes, Turdus naumanni naumanni , which was apparently the first sighting for the Indian Subcontinent, as well as Dusky Thrush and Red-throated and Black-throated Thrushes. We again saw the Chestnut-breasted Partridge, for which we got the first modern record on our 1997 Bhutan Tour. Our sighting of the Yellow-vented Flowerpecker was probably only the second for Bhutan.
There were close up views of Ibisbills, Purple Cochoa, Dark-rumped Swifts, an exquisite male Ward's Tragon in the scope at only 40 feet, Blue-fronted Robin, Wallcreeper, 5 species of parrotbills (Great, Brown, Black-throated, Blue-spectacled and Grey-headed), 14 species of laughingthrushes (including Spotted, Grey-sided, Rufous-chinned, Blue-winged and Scaly), 4 of the small wren-babblers (Bar-winged, Spotted, Rufous-throated and Scaly-breasted), the Red-faced Liocichla, 4 shrike-babblers (including Black-headed and Green) 5 scimitar-babblers (including Slender-billed and Coral-billed), Red-billed Leiothrix, Silver-eared Mesia, Cutia, 2 barwings, 3 minlas, 5 fulvettas (including Golden-breasted and Yellow-throated), 6 yuhinas, Hill and Rufous-throated Partridges, Kalij Pheasant, Speckled Wood-Pigeon, Pin-tailed Pigeon, lots of Asian Emerald Cuckoos, 4 species of hornbills (including great looks at the Rufous-necked), Crimson-breasted, Rufous-bellied and Darjeeling Woodpeckers, Alpine, Rufous-breasted and Maroon-backed Accentors, all 4 bush-robins, White-throated Redstart, 4 forktails, 3 rockthrushes, Long-billed, Plain-backed and Long-tailed Thrushes, Indian Grey Thrush, Broad-billed and Black-faced Warblers, White-gorgeted Flycatcher, Sapphire and Pygmy Blue Flycatchers, Rufous-fronted, Fire-capped and Sultan Tits, lots of great views of Green-tailed, Fire-tailed, Goulds, Crimson and Black-throated Sunbirds, Tibetan Serin, 4 rosefinches, 3 separate sightings of the Crimson-browed Finch, Scarlet Finch, and Spot-winged Grosbeak.
We also saw some nice mammals, including Yellow-throated Martin, Goral, Grey and Capped Langurs, Rhesus and Assamese Macques, Barking Deer and several squirrels. Add to the great birding, the good company of the group, the fine hospitality of our Bhutanese hosts and good to excellent food and it was a grand trip.
1997 BHUTAN TOUR
A faint familiar call came from far away down the slope. I stopped and listened intently, while motioning the group to stand quietly. The bird called again, still far away. Yes, it did sound like the unusual partridge call I'd taped nearby a year previously. Then the bird was close above us, but the hill was too steep to climb and the partridge remained unidentified. I'd been playing the tape at odd intervals as we approached the site, but without response. Now there was a response but it seemed quite far. I played the tape several times and waited. Another response, maybe closer? After some more playbacks and more responses, the calls were closer, but still rather far, and the same as the call on the tape. It looked like we'd have to move closer. Fortunately, while steep, it was not difficult to climb down. We moved about 200 yards downslope and I played the tape again. The partridge responded and gradually moved closer. Eventually it was calling from only 30 feet away, in some heavy undergrowth. I taped some new and more excited calls from the bird. Suddenly the partridge burst from cover and ran across an open space, giving several of the group a quick look at its bright chestnut head, neck and breast. Chestnut-breasted Partridge! Not everyone had seen the bird, and those who did had only a brief glimpse. We moved about 30 yards to a spot where the vegetation was less dense and there was more open space between the large patches of cover. I played the newer bits of tape I had gotten, hoping the bird would come in again. Soon the pair of partridges was excitedly' scuttling around in some low semi-open vegetation where we got several glimpses of them. The partridge's excitement was volubly expressed with ever more frenzied calling. Playback of these calls brought the pair walking fast across a broad open expanse of ground that gave everyone a superb view. It's quite a beautiful bird, the most attractive of all the 17 species of Arborophila partridges. There was smiling and handshakes all around. This was the first modern sighting of this species!
It was a good trip for partridges as everyone got excellent views of the Hill Partridge and most got good looks at the Rufous-throated Partridge. Then there was that staggering view of male Himalayan Monal, his plumage shimmering in perfect light just 20 ft. from our bus full of goggle-eyed birders. Add to that a fine female Satyr Tragopan (unfortunately only one person got to see the male), several Kalij Pheasants and some Indian Peafowl and it was a good trip for the chickens.
A Satyr Tragopan was calling up a small ravine. The tape kept him calling and moving, but the bird wouldn't show himself. So we walked up the ravine a few yards, sat down and tried again. The tragopan still replied but wouldn't join us. So I played a few other tapes to see what might be around. While I was playing his call, a Bar-winged Wren-Babbler responded and was soon 12 ft. away, protesting this rival's incursion. Watching this cute little sprite was one of the highlights of the trip. We got similarly good looks at the other 4 small wren-babblers (Spotted, Rufous-throated, Scaly-breasted, and Pygmy), as well.
We watched as the Osprey hovered and plunged, catching a fair-sized fish in its talons. As he flew off with his prey, a Pallas's Fish-Eagle swooped in from nowhere and the Osprey dropped the fish on a rocky island in the river. The eagle flew down to pick up the fish with the Osprey in close pursuit. The Osprey was too close for comfort and the eagle passed up the fish and the 2 birds chased each other for a spectacular few minutes as we watched open-mouthed. Finally the eagle landed in a tree, with the Osprey flying back and forth for some time, screaming his indignation. Meanwhile, a young Bhutanese waded out and took the Osprey's fish.
Other birds were: the rare Blyth's Kingfisher, superb views of Ibisbills , marvelous scope views of a male Ward's Trogon, wonderful Rufous-necked Hornbills, Yellow-rumped Honeyguide, Greater Adjutant, good looks at the exquisite Fire-tailed Myzornis, 12 species of laughingthrushes (including Rufous-chinned, Grey-sided, Blue-winged and Rufous-necked), Black-headed Shrike-Babbler, Red-faced Liocichla, Yellow-legged Buttonquail, Pin-tailed Pigeon, Black-backed Kingfisher, Long-tailed Broadbills, Blyth's Pipit, Alpine, Maroon-backed and Rufous-breasted Accentors, White-browed and Rufous-breasted Bush-Robins, White-throated Redstart, White-tailed Robin, Plain-backed and Long-tailed Thrushes, 6 scimitar-babblers (including Spot-breasted, Slender-billed and Coral-billed), Silver-eared Mesia, Green Shrike-Babbler, 5 fulvettas, 4 parrotbills (including Great, Brown and Greater Rufous-headed), all 3 tesias, Russet Bush-Warbler, Broad-billed Warbler, Sapphire and Pygmy Blue Flycatchers, Rufous-fronted, Sultan and Fire-capped Tits, Fire-tailed Sunbird, Tibetan Serin, 5 species of rosefinches, and the Scarlet Finch. Among the mammals, there were several nice ones, Goral (a goat), Yellow-throated and Beech Martins and the Capped Langur. It was a great trip in the grand Himalayas, in one of the world's most heavily forested and hospitable countries
BHUTAN, May 1996
by John Holmes
Having been to Bhutan in May 1992 I was keen to get back there to bird it more thoroughly. Thus it was that Jemi Wong and I found ourselves at Paro Airport on 28 April with 7 others on the 1996 KingBird tour, led by Ben King himself. A broad clear river runs nearby and our leader was mindful of Ibisbills.
I made my only ornithological contribution to the trip early on by successfully guiding the punters to an Ibisbill site that I remembered from 1992. The 3-week tour traversed Bhutan from West to East. We started well by getting views down to 20 feet of a male Satyr Tragopan at Dochu-La Pass.
Our next stop was Punaka where we birded the picturesque valley that leads to the entrance of Jigmi Dorji National Park.
At one point we found a juvenile Mountain Hawk Eagle sitting at eye height a few feet in front of the minibus. After a few minutes its frantic parents dive-bombed it into movement. Between the towns of Tongsa and Bumthang we took a diversion to search for Yellow-rumped Honeyguide. The bees' nests that clung to a rock overhang were quickly spotted but it took a few minutes to locate the birds themselves.
Over a pass with Snow Pigeons and White-collared Blackbirds and onto our first campsite, about 40km west of Mongar. This was my favorite site of the trip, on a spur with a commanding view. Black Eagles circled overhead while Blue-bearded Bee-eaters fed young at a nest hole in the valley below. We encountered Rufous-necked Hornbills for the first time and twice saw what was for many the bird of the trip, Ward's Tragon. At our second encounter I managed to get a few photos of the male as it perched obligingly about 60 ft. away.
Birds seen or heard almost daily on the trip included the familiar Oriental Turtle Dove, Spotted Dove, Great Barbet, Bay Woodpecker, Black-winged Cuckooshrike, Black Bulbul, Plumbeous Redstart, Blue Whistling Thrush, Rufous-capped Babbler, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Large Hawk Cuckoo and Indian Cuckoo. Green-backed Tits, Black-headed Sibia, Green-tailed Sunbirds and Maroon Orioles provided a more exotic background.
We had a night in Mongar (nice town, lovely guest house) and another night in Tashigang (scruffy town, shabby guest house). Heading south for the Indian border we encountered Ben King's second life tick of the trip, Beautiful Nuthatch. The bird was the 7,000th tick for Cliff Pollard who found it. It was raining heavily by the time that we arrived at our second designated campsite. A cow byre was newly erected nearby, and leeches were much in evidence.
The flooding worsened and we were glad to transfer the bedding to the floor of newly completed dormitories of the polytechnic at Dewangiri. With the plains of India in sight and the habitat rather scrubby I felt that we spent too long around Dewangiri. However we did encounter some goodies such as the enigmatic Dark-rumped Swift, a first for Bhutan, and also Red-faced Liochichla, Hooded Pitta, Long-tailed Broadbill and Blyth's Kingfisher. The last species reminded me of Boeing aircraft in the sense that Alcedo hercules is definitely the furthest that the Alcedo design can be stretched: the wings seem to flap so hard to keep the body airborne.
We crossed the border into India on 16 May with 307 species seen in Bhutan and nine more "heards." Much of the birding had been done walking along the road, but with so little traffic this was a pleasure.
Ben King is the authority on Asian birds and his knowledge of calls is unsurpassed. He works extremely hard to tape and "play out" the skulkers, and this, combined with long days in the field, certainly left me with the feeling that we had explored the area thoroughly.
With only one or two rabid listers in the party but several would-be photographers, I felt we could have eased up a little to photograph or admire the views in one or two places. Nevertheless, an excellent trip. As they say at the end of Police Staff reports (but never about me): "Highly Recommended"!'