Autumn Birding in Bhutan

Autumn Birding in Bhutan

SYNOPSIS
Bhutan has been protected by its isolation within the Himalayas and its mountainous terrain. The deep valleys and almost impenetrable jungles have acted as allies in preventing destruction of the forests. Today over 70% of the land is forested, 25% is protected with 9 National Parks, together with great variation in altitudes of 200m-4,000m, creates an extremely wide range of habitats. In this pristine environment where religion states that all life is sacred, wildlife flourishes, making Bhutan one of the top ten bio diversity hot-spots in the world. It is also the centre of 221 Global Endemic Bird Areas and to date has 120 species of Butterflies (28 endemic Eastern Himalayas) with 750 plant species endemic to the Eastern Himalayas.

Our Winter Birding tour will take you through the most amazingly beautiful landscape, full of birding excellence in sub-tropical and temperate forests, alpine meadows and along untamed rivers, where we should encounter over 200 different birds.

There are two main highlights of our Winter Birding Tour: the first is around Punakha, where we will scout along the crystal clear waters of the Puna Tsang Chhu for the critically endangered White-bellied Heron and Pallas Fish Eagle, under the watchful eye of the impressive Punakha Dzong. Our second highlight is a visit to the Phobjikha Valley, home to the endangered Black-necked Cranes. Here we will spend time walking in this beautiful glaciated valley as the cranes with their wing-span of 7.8 feet, fly overhead. We will also experience the annual crane festival organized by the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature (RSPN), together with members of the village, the local monks and businessmen as an integral part of the Eco-tourism/Community based sustainable tourism program.

There will also be time to see the amazing architecture, visit dzong’s and meet the friendly Bhutanese people and perhaps visit the famous Thimphu Weekend market. Overall, experience the unique culture of Bhutan; expanding your interests but not compromising your main objectives!

Tour Pace & Walking: Moderate pace, undemanding walks & some long drives.

Average temperature: Temperate & cold to warm tropical with some rain expected.

Number of species expected: 150 – 250

Photographic Opportunities: Excellent

Duration : 09 nights
Local Leader : Chubzang Tangbi
Group Size : Maximum 12
Accommodation : 9 nights in hotels
Altitudes : 1,000m/3,280ft – 3,822m/12,539ft.
US$5000/person

Day 1: Flight into Paro and birding along Paro river.

Day 2: Paro to Chele La (3,822m) and drive to Thimphu (Approx. 125kms, 5.5 hrs).

Day 3: Thimphu to Punakha, (70kms, 3 hrs ), birding at Dochu La, 3,116m and Lampelri Botanical Park.

Day 4: Punakha – Tashithang (JDN Park) – Punakha, (approx 70kms, 3 hrs ).

Day 5: Punakha to Phobjikha, 3,000m, (90kms, 3 hrs).

Day 6: Visit Gangtey monastery for Black-necked Crane Festival.

Day 7: Phobjikha to Wangdue, (75kms, 3 hrs drive). Birding at Pele La (3,390m).

Day 8: Wangdue to Paro over Dochu La at 3,116m, (120kms, 4.5 hrs).

Day 9: Hike/ride a horse to Taksang Monastery. Birding enroute.

Day 10: Depart Paro with Druk Air/Bhutan Airlines for your own ward connection.

Day 1: Flight into Paro and birding along Paro river.
This morning we take the Druk Air flight to Paro, Bhutan, where there are excellent views of the Himalayas, including some of the highest mountains in the world. After clearing customs you will be met by your guide and driven to your hotel. A brief rest then we will take the short drive to the Ta Dzong, which houses the National museum and provides an excellent introduction to Bhutan’s heritage and culture. As time allows, we will take a short walk along the banks of the Pa Chhu and begin our birding programme, where camouflaged amongst the glacial stones, Himalayan riverine species such as the elegant Ibisbill can be seen as it dips in the snowmelt, searching for food amongst the stones and boulders. In this area we should also find: Pied Wagtail; White-capped and Plumbeous water redstarts; Blue Whistling Thrush; Oriental Turtle Dove and Common Hoopoe; Crested Goshawk; Eurasian Kestrel; Kalij Pheasant; Brown Dipper; White-collared Blackbird; Long-tailed and Gray-backed shrikes; Black-faced and Chestnut-crowned laughingthrushes; Brown Parrotbill; Chestnut-tailed Minla and Common Kestrel.

NIGHT: Hotel Olathang, Paro, (2,300m).

Day 2: Paro to Chele La (3,822m) and drive to Thimphu (Approx. 125kms, 5.5 hrs).
An early morning departure for our journey up through ancient pine and fir forests to Chele la Pass (3,822m), where there are fantastic views of the high Himalayan peaks of Jhomolhari (7,219m), Jichu Drake (6,989m) and down into the Paro and Ha valleys. Chele la gives us the opportunity to ascend above the tree line into alpine meadows and dwarf rhododendron scrub; here we have the possibility of finding the beautiful Himalayan Monal. We should also encounter: Blood Pheasant; Himalayan Griffon; Kalij Pheasant; Spotted Laughingthrush; Blue-fronted Redstart; Fire-tailed Sunbird; Orange-flanked Bush Robin; Rufous-breasted Accentor and the beautifully coloured White-browed Rosefinch. After a hot breakfast cooked by our chefs we will continue birding in this beautiful area before gradually making our way back to Paro and on to Thimphu. The route follows the Willow fringed Pa Chhu river and passes through forests of blue pine. Some of the best birding can be found at the sewage treatment plant where we should see the Black-tailed Crake and migrant species to include: Tufted Duck; Ferruginous Pochard; Ruddy Shelduck; Northern Pintail; Garganey and Northern Shoveler.

Reaching Thimphu we will walk to the Takin zoo where species such as Red-billed Leiothrix; Grey Bush Chat; Blyth’s Leaf Warbler and Green-tailed Sunbird can be found. Thimphu is a quiet city, set in beautiful scenery with a gentle pace of life and many culture sites.

NIGHT: Riverview Hotel, Thimphu, (2,300m).

Day 3: Thimphu to Punakha, (70kms, 3.5 hrs), birding en-route at Dochu La, 3,116m and Lampelri Botanical Park.
Today we must leave very early in order to see the Himalayas as dawn breaks over Dochu La (3,116m). This is an awe-inspiring sight with 108 chortens, celebrating the safe return of the fourth king from a threatened invasion and the road itself is festooned with prayer flags. In the pristine mixed forests of hemlock, fir and oak, there is an incredible wide range of mammals and birds, where it is possible to see species such as: Green-tailed and Mrs. Gould’s sunbirds; Ultramarine Flycatcher; Black-faced Laughingthrush and Hodgson’s Redstart; while Hill Partridge forage in the forest undergrowth.  As we come down from the pass we may encounter: Mountain Hawk Eagle; Eurasian Treecreeper; Grey Bush Chat and Golden Bush Robin.

Soon it will be time to continue down through the sub-tropical forests, cactus, poinsettia and banana plants, until around 1,300m we reach the green terraced fields of Punakha, the former capital of Bhutan and its magnificent dzong which remains the winter residence for the Je Khenpo, the spiritual leader of Bhutan and around 400 monks. Punakha Dzong sits on a promontory that juts between the crystal-clear waters of the Mo Chhu (female) and Pho Chhu (male), which merge into the Puna Tsang Chhu. This relatively open habitat is home to the Crested and White-throated Kingfisher; Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babbler; Brown Shrike; Scaly-breasted Munia; Yellow-breasted Greenfinch; Oriental White Eye; Slender-billed Oriole; Rufous Woodpecker and Long-tailed Minivet.

NIGHT: Meri Puensum, Punakha, (1,300m).

Day 4: Punakha – Tashithang – Punakha, (70kms, 3 hrs).
An early morning drive northwards to Tashithang and the beautiful, pristine forested areas of Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Park, at an elevation of 1,400m. Here along the warm broad-leaved forest, we may encounter: River Lapwing; Red-headed Trogon; Gray-headed Woodpecker; Greater Yellownape; Striated Bulbul; the glowing Small Niltava; Grey-bellied, Slaty-bellied and Chestnut-headed tesias; Pygmy Blue-Flycatcher; Pygmy and Spotted wren babblers; Nepal Fulvetta; Slaty-backed and Spotted forktails and the dazzling Scarlet Finch.

Towards mid-day when birding lessens, we will return to Punakha and spend time exploring the dzong where we will get a glimpse of Bhutanese religion and culture. Inside the dzong there are many detailed frescos and magnificent carvings showing the creative skills of our artists and just two of our thirteen traditional arts. It is seen to its best in the afternoon sunshine, when the richness of the paintings can be fully appreciated. Perhaps the most spectacular building is the Kuenrey or Assembly Hall with its huge statues of Buddha, Guru Rinpoche and the Zhabdrung under a truly spectacular ceiling featuring hundreds of painted dragons. Punthang Dechen Phodrang (Punakha Dzong), is an impressive dzong that sits comfortably in its superb setting and, as the translation states, is a Palace of Great Bliss.
In the late afternoon, we will drive along the Pho Chhu, looking for the globally threatened White-bellied Heron (the world’s second largest and the least known), Pallas’s Fish Eagle as well as the many waterfowl that feed in the waters here.

NIGHT: Meri Puensum, Punakha, (1,300m).

Day 5: Punakha to Phobjikha, 3,000m, (90kms, 3 hrs).
Today we take the winding mountain road up through oak and rhododendron forests, festooned with lichens towards Pele La, which divides eastern and western Bhutan. In these diverse habitats there will be good birding opportunities where we should find: Wallcreeper (winter visitor), Great and Golden-throated Barbet; Orange-bellied Leafbird; Speckled Piculet; Crimson-breasted; Bay and Grey-headed woodpeckers; Yellow-billed Blue Magpie; Spotted Nutcracker; Himalayan Griffon and Snow Pigeon.

From here our journey takes us to the picturesque Phobjikha Valley and the highlight of the day – the Black-necked Cranes who migrate from the Tibetan plateau to over-winter here from late October to March. Phobjikha is situated on the western slopes of the Black Mountains, bordering the Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park. It is one of Bhutan’s few glacial valleys and a very important wildlife preserve. After lunch, we will spend the remainder of the day watching the Black-necked Cranes from advantage points and walk in the valley as these magnificent birds with their impressive seven and a half feet wing-span as they fly overhead. These birds are considered to be an auspicious sign and the people of the valley await their arrival each winter for the blessings they will bring. The valley is also home to the Winter Wren; Oriental Skylark; Spotted, Black-faced and Chestnut-crowned laughingthrushes; Olive-backed Pipit; Durian Redstart; Red-billed Chough; Hen Harrier; Common Buzzard; Golden Eagle and with a bit of luck we should also encounter Greater-spotted Eagle and Lammergeier.
Situated on the edge of the forest and wetland along the main road of Phobjikha valley, the Black-necked Crane Information Centre has an observation room equipped with high power spotting scope for catching the best view of the cranes. The centre also offers display information that outline the natural and cultural history of the area. There is a small gift shop, which sells handicrafts produced by the local people.

NIGHT: Hotel Gakiling, Phobjikha, (3,000m).

Day 6: Visit to Gangtey monastery for the magnificent Black-necked Crane Festival;
introduced in 1998 by the RSPN. Phobjikha is the most significant wetland in Bhutan and as such it is the most significant over-wintering ground for the Black-neck Cranes. However, this valley is also home to around 500 subsistence farmers, who although known for their traditional respect for all sentient beings, also wish for economic development. In order to combine these two elements, the RSPN together with members of the village, the body of monks and local businessmen, developed the Black-neck Crane Festival as an integral part of the Eco-tourism/Community based sustainable tourism program. Bhutanese Festivals or Tshechus are held in villages and towns throughout the year.

These are happy social events, a riot of colour with quite spectacular dancing. People dress in their finest clothes and gather in the courtyards of temples or Dzongs, in order to participate in the ceremonies and watch religious dances performed in honour of Guru Rinpoche and his incredible deeds. Here in Phobjikha, this is a very important occasion as the people who live in the valley wish to show their gratitude to the Cranes and further their knowledge on environmental conservation for both themselves and the Cranes. The Festival Dances we will see are both traditional and can be traced back to the Pema Lingpa in the fifteenth century, as well as new dances based on the theme of Black-neck Cranes specially created for this auspicious occasion. They are performed by young monks and lay men who, dressed in brightly coloured gowns (often hand loomed silks), and wearing different masks represent Buddhist deities, demons and animals, complete elaborate dances (Cham), representing the destruction of evil spirits, acknowledged in the Bhutanese faith as well as those depicting Black-neck Cranes.

There are Folk Dances performed by villagers (often women) who, in lines or circles move in intricate series of forward and backward steps, accompanied by graceful hand and arm actions. But perhaps the highlight of all, are the environmental conservation themed stories and songs, sung by the school children. The Black-necked Crane Festival not only marks the arrival of these magnificent birds but also aims to generate awareness and understanding of the importance of conserving these rare and endangered birds. However, the success of the festival and its continuity depends entirely upon the support and contributions of the visitors and well wishers of conservation programs. By participating and enjoying the event, you will be helping to promote traditional respect for all sentient beings, while enabling economic development; by maintaining continued conservation stewardship.

After spending the morning at the festival, we will have a hot picnic lunch after which we will do some birding around Pele La (3,390m). Here we will look for Spotted Laughingthrush; Great and Brown parrotbills; Common Rosefinch; Rufous-vented, Whiskered and Stripe-throated yuhinas; Hen Harrier; Himalayan Griffon and Lammergeier.

NIGHT: Hotel Gakiling, Phobjikha, (2,700m).

Day 7: Phobjikha to Wangdue, (75kms, 3 hrs).
Before leaving the Phobjikha valley, you may like to take one last walk in the valley with the endangered Black-necked Cranes and making our way to Wangdue. This is a short but quite dramatic journey, with plenty of stops for photographing the amazing scenery and to bird in the differing habitats through which we will pass.

Our journey begins with a gradual climb up out of the Phobjikha Valley to a ridge at 3,293m and on to Lawa La, just 3 kms below Pele La. With clear winter skies, the views across to Jichu Drake and Kang Bum are nothing short of spectacular. The road continues to hug the edge of the valley as it descends through temperate broad-leaved forests down to sub-tropical valley of Wangdue. Here we can stop to look for the Yellow-rumped Honeyguide; Eurasian Jay; Mountain Hawk Eagle; Crested Serpent Eagle; Plain-backed Thrush; Blue Whistling Thrush; Great Barbet and for low elevation species such as Red-vented Bulbul and Common Myna – demonstrating the great diversity of species within a short distance. From here we follow the Dang Chhu to our hotel, the Kychu Resort, set along the banks of the tumbling river close to its confluence with the Puna Tshang Chhu.

Our hotel grounds provide us with the perfect place to look for Hill Prinia; Common Tailorbird; Blue-throated Flycatcher and Rufous Woodpecker.

NIGHT: Wangdue Eco Resort, Wangdue, (1,100m).

Day 8: Wangdue to Paro, (120kms, 4.5 hrs).
Today we will return to Paro, at first following the Dang Chhu before climbing up out of the river valley through the village of Lobesa and beginning the climb to Dochu La, stopping en-route to bird at the Royal Botanical Park where we should be able to see species such as Darjeeling and Rufous-bellied woodpeckers; Grey-winged Blackbird; Blanford’s Rosefinch; Kalij Pheasant; Yellow-browed and Green-backed tits; Grey-backed and Long-tailed shrikes; and Rusty-flanked Treecreeper.

As time permits we will stop at Thimphu for the Weekend Market; a busy place as farmers and craftsmen from far and near come to sell their produce, before we head for Paro and our hotel for the next two nights.

NIGHT: Hotel Olathang, Paro, (2,300m).

Day 9: Hike to Taksang Monastery and Birding in the Paro Valley.
Today you will have a fabulous last day in Bhutan with a great mix of birding and some of the Paro Valley’s cultural treasures. The cultural highlight will be the walk up to the famous Tiger’s Nest, Taksang Monastery.  The monastery is perched on a cliff-face, some 600m overlooking the valley and was said to be where the legendary Indian saint, Guru Padma Sambhava, flew from Tibet on the back of a tiger to defeat five demons who were opposing the spread of Buddhism in Bhutan. It is a steep uphill walk through woods, of about 1½-2hrs, to reach a tea house (an ascent of 340m). Apart from offering welcome refreshment, this tea house is one of the principle viewpoints of the monastery, and those who prefer not to climb any further can relax here whilst others continue on.  The full walk to the monastery and back involves approximately 740m of ascent and takes approx. 3-4 hrs.

Along this hike we may see bird species such as Green-backed, Coal and Grey-crested tits; White-tailed Nuthatch; Yellow-billed Blue Magpie; Spotted Nutcracker; Black-faced, Chestnut-crowned, White-throated and Spotted laughingthrushes; Up at the monastery by the rocky ledges we will scan for flocks of Snow Pigeon and Alpine Accentor while the waterfall next to the monastery often gives us the opportunity to see Little Forktail and White-capped and Plumbeous water redstarts. From here and if time permits, we will bird along the Pa Chhu. Some of the species we regularly see here include; Rosy Pipit; Common Snipe; Black-tailed Crake; Common and Green sandpipers; Common Kestrels, White-collared Blackbird and Grey-backed Shrike.

NIGHT: Hotel Olathang, Paro, (2,300m).

Day 10: Fly from Paro for your onward connection.

Included in Bhutan Land Cost:

  • Visa and Tax
  • Tour Guide who is expert in the field
  • All activities as mentioned in the itinerary
  • All accommodation based on sharing twin room
  • All meals
  • Tea/coffee and snacks
  • Bottled water throughout the trip
  • Ground transportation
  • All necessary camping equipment
  • All entrance fees for museums

Not Included in Bhutan Land Cost:

  • Travel insurance (essential)
  • Laundry, phone calls and alcoholic drinks
  • Personal expenses
  • Charges incurred as a result of circumstances beyond the control of Langur Eco Travels
  • International flights

Note Regarding Single Supplements:
Single occupancy US $25 per night.


Trip Grade: Gentle to Moderate Hikes:
You should prepare for certain factors of travel in Bhutan. A few of the most important are: elevation, windy mountain roads. Average elevation on this trip is 2,400m. Pass crossings may be up to 4,000m (by vehicle).

Insurance:
We strongly advise that your travel insurance policies include medical assistance and (helicopter) evacuation – we believe that it is ‘better to be safe than sorry!’ Should you decline to do so, we must state that we will in no way, accept responsibility for expenses incurred, should you require medical attention/evacuation whilst on holiday with us.

Accommodation:
It is our policy to use the best available accommodation in each location. All hotels and lodges we use are government approved and registered with the Tourism Council of Bhutan. We have our own camping crew who will set up camps, prepare hot meals and provide hot showers.

Clothing:
It is advised that you have layers of light clothing, perhaps some thermal underwear, a warm jumper, fleece or jacket for the evenings when the temperature can suddenly drop. Generally speaking, casual clothing is suitable throughout your stay and that the main requirement is that you are comfortable.

Laundry facilities are available at all hotels. Waterproofs and/or umbrellas – just in case! Sunglasses and sun-cream or blocks are essential. Hand wipes (wet wipes/ anti-bacterial) and tissues are useful.

Habitats Covered: Warm broad leaved forests with bamboo undergrowth, Cool broad leaved forests, Coniferous forests with rhododendron undergrowth, wetlands, rocky slopes, rivers, agricultural lands and pastures.


Top Birds: Spotted and Rufous-chinned laughingthrushes; Snow Pigeon; White-throated Redstart; Yellow-rumped Honeyguide; Satyr Tragopan; Himalayan Monal; Blood Pheasant; Cutia; Wallcreeper; Ibisbill; Collard Grosbeak; Fire-tailed Myzornis; Great and Brown parrotbills; White-browed Rosefinch; Himalayan Wood Owl; White-bellied Heron; Palla’s Fish Eagle and Black-necked Crane.


Top Mammals: Capped and Common Grey langurs; Large-eared Pika; Assamese Macaque; Muntjac; Himalayan Striped Squirrel; Hoary-bellied Squirrel; Malayan Giant Squirrel and Hodgson’s Giant Flying Squirrel.
Other attractions: Strong Buddhist culture, temples and fortresses, spectacular mountain scenery and magnificent forests.

Number of Pax Price Per Pax
1 US $3,400
2 US $3,260
3-12 US $2,840