Wednesday, January 4, 2012


Monday, 7th November 2011    Arrival in Paro, Bhutan & drive to Thimphu

We caught the 5 am airport shuttle from our hotel in Bangkok and met up with our group at the Druckair - Royal Bhutan Airlines check-in counter.  Our flight was delayed 1 1/2 hours to give the crew the required rest time as they had arrived very late in Bangkok the previous night.  We finally took off at 9:30 am (spotting a Painted Stork on the airfield as we taxied to the runway) and were served a sumptuous breakfast by the very prim Bhutanese hostesses.  Our plane stopped in Guwahati, in the Indian state of Assam, southeast of Bhutan.  We were on the ground for more than half an hour.

Hishey Tshering
The onward flight to Paro was only 35 minutes.  The pilot forewarned us that to get into Paro we would have to bank sharply and come down just over some low hills with mountains towering above us on both sides.  Nancy took photos through the airplane window.  The airport buildings were in ornate Bhutanese style, and we all stopped on the tarmac to photograph them.  We went swiftly through immigration, got our luggage and were greeted by our host and lead guide Hishey Tshering, owner of Bhutan Birding & Heritage Travels.  Our trip was organized by Wilderness Birding Adventures of Eagle River, Alaska.  They have worked for several years with Hishey on their annual Bhutan trips.
Confluence of the Paro and Thimpu Rivers
Leaving the airport we drove down along the Paro River for our first birding.  We saw Grey-backed Shrike, White Wagtail, various redstarts and finally the unique Ibisbill, one of our major targets. Nancy tried to photograph it but the bird stayed a bit too far away and the noon sun was bright causing lots of distracting water reflections.  We then drove down to the junction of the Thimpu and Paro Rivers, walked across the highway bridge and reboarded our bus for the drive up the Thimpu River to the city of Thimpu, Bhutan's capital and, with a population of 100,000, home to one-sixth of the country's people.  By this time, it was 3 pm and we went directly to a late lunch.  The food was ok but nothing special.  

We then drove up to a wildlife park with Takin, Samba deer and a little goat-like critter.  The animals were in large areas enclosed with very tall and thick woven fencing, making it impossible to photograph them.  There were a few holes cut into the fencing to put a camera through, but of course the animals were nowhere near these openings!  Two young women were hand-weaving silk scarves and had them for sale.  Later Kenna Sue and Nancy lamented that they did not buy some of the delicate and beautiful scarves when they saw how overpriced they became in the tourist shops.  It was then back to town and the Yeedzin Guest House, an old establishment but quite serviceable.  We showered, had dinner and collapsed into bed, as we were still somewhat jetlagged.  We saw 14 birds today, two of them new for us.
Rufous Sibia, one of the most common birds of the forest
Tuesday, 8th November    Thimphu area

We had coffee in the lobby at 5:45 am prepared by Bob. Knowing that the coffee served in Bhutan is instant Nescafe, Bob thoughtfully brought ground coffee and a big coffee press pot from Alaska.  We had to ration it or else we would have used up the supply way too quickly.  We traveled in a med-size modern bus, nicknamed the Grus Mobile.  “Grus” is the genus name for cranes.  The bus had nice large windows and our driver, Dorji, made a point of keeping them clean.  We traveled up a side road into the mountains north of Thimphu to a village below Cheri and Tango Monaster­ies. There we birded around the village and ate a picnic breakfast, prepared by Hishey's 5-man support crew, who shadowed us throughout most of our trip.  After breakfast, we hiked up the steep trail with its 1000-foot elevation gain to Tango Monastery.  

Stripe-throated Yuhina
As we were just setting off up the trail, a large flock of birds came through, and we were almost frantic trying to see them all.  There were at least 3 species of warbler, tits, and others.  We encountered at least two more flocks on the way up, including the Rusty-flanked Treecreeper.  The monastery was built in 1686 and is resplendent with all the lavish trappings of Bhuddism.  There were lots of young men around, dressed in red robes.  They are doing their "monk" service and studying.  We had a tour of the monastery.  To visit the prayer rooms, we all had to take our shoes off.  Inside there is a special room with Buddhist statues and symbolic gifts.  It was surprising to us that some of these gifts were wrapped candies, a small box of potatoes, plastic flowers, beads and of course, money.  Each time we visited a monastery we learned a bit more of the Bhuddist beliefs.  
Nancy following a pack train up to Tango Monastery.
Bob Dittrick looking at votive candles in Tango Monastery.
Young monks at monastery.  Cell phones are everywhere!
We stopped the bus on the way back down the mountain at the same small park where we had breakfast.  This time our support crew had lunch for us.  We then stopped on the way further down and found the Yellow-rumped Honeyguide hanging out by some huge honeycombs hanging over a small stream.  

Capped Langur
A little further on, we stopped to enjoy and photograph a troupe of Capped Langurs (large monkeys) cavorting through the trees.  Then we drove back into Thimpu, where we spent far too much time shopping, wasting most of the afternoon to our dismay.  Late in the day, we went to the sewage ponds, where we found a pair of Ibisbill, a Long-billed Plover, and to everyone's amazement, a Wallcreeper on the river bank.  Nancy tried to photograph the Ibisbill in the fading light with some success.  But the Wallcreeper was too distant.  We did enjoy the Wallcreeper bathing in the river edge. This was a new bird for us and very high on our desired target list. Returning to the guest house, we made a quick shopping foray for saffron, which is quite cheap here.  We did the bird list at dinner and turned in.  We have seen 44 species so far, and with the 12 new birds seen today, our lifer total is now at 14.  Equally important, we have added two bird families to our world tally.

Wednesday, 9th November     Thimphu to Punakhar

Dochu La with some of the 108 chortens.
This morning we packed up and began climbing northeast up the narrow paved road to the top of Dochu La Pass at 10,362 ft. Dochu La is one of the most spectacular spots in Bhutan with its 108 chortens beautifully laid out across the mountain­top, prayer flags fluttering from the towering pine trees, and the vast Himalayas in the distance. We stopped at the pass and took lots of pictures.  Nancy  particularly enjoyed photographing the masses of colorful prayer flags fluttering in the breezes. 

Chuck surrounded by prayer flags.
We  then began walking down the east side to see what birds we could find.  First were Gold-billed Magpies with their spectacularly long tails.  We stopped several times on our long way down and encountered one flock with about a dozen species including the Golden-breasted Fulvetta and Rufous-winged Fulvetta working the moss-covered trees of this beautiful forest. 

Golden-breasted Fulvetta
We stopped for a picnic breakfast at a small national park.  Our support crew put on a nice spread of eggs, toast, cold cereal, the ubiquitous rice and delicious home-made yogurt, along with juice, tea and coffee.  We then walked through the park but there were not many birds around.  We drove on down to the edge of the town of Wangdue Pho­drang (also called Wangdi) on the banks of the Punak Tsang Chhu and turned north driving a short distance to the town of Punakha. We headed up the dirt track along the Po Chhu and after considerable scanning of the river we finally spotted our target, a distant White-bellied Heron.  With only an estimated 200 birds remaining in the wild, it is classed as critically endangered.  

The bus then dropped us at one of the longest single-span suspension footbridges in the world, and we crossed it with some trepidation.  Though it was actually fairly wide and quite safe, it was quite scary, especially for Chuck who doesn't care much for heights. Several of the group watched Chuck as he crossed with slow, humorless determination, not knowing he had a line of people behind him.  We reboarded the bus and drove for an hour and a half up a bad dirt road along the Mo Chhu to our camp along the river's edge in Jigme Dorji National Park. The support crew had erected 2-person wall tents complete with cots and heavy blankets.  We dined in a mess tent, did the bird lists and crawled into our cots.  We have now seen 76 species, 22 of them new with the 8 new birds we saw today.

Thursday, 10th November     Punakha to Phobjikha

We both slept very well in our tent.  Though it was quite cold, we both had heavy blankets and were warm enough in our cots.  The center of the tent was tall enough to stand and that made getting dressed and undressed much easier.  The support crew had coffee ready for us at 6 am, and then we walked up the road to look for birds.  We most enjoyed a Little Forktail climbing on the wet cliff face next to a substantial waterfall.  We also saw Chestnut-headed Tesia, Rufous-chinned Laughingthrush and Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher.  Try as we might, we could not find the Tawny Fishing Owl that lives in this area.  We returned to camp around 8 for a good breakfast, then packed up and started walking down the road to continue our birding along the beautiful Mo Chhu in the steep, deep mixed hard­wood forest.  We alternately walked and rode as we headed back down the valley, seeing some interesting birds including a perched Mountain Hawk-eagle and a very close Wallcreeper, both of which Nancy was able to photograph. 
We then had a tour of the country's most important Dzong, where the king was married last month.  While the others went into the Dzong, Chuck & Nancy preferred to stay outside and enjoy the sun and people.  We took lots of photos, including several of two little kids dressed up in red traditional outfits.  Nancy took photos of the interesting motifs painted on the outside walls, marveling about their detail and wondering what they meant.   

Our crew had lunch ready in a nearby park, and then we set off on a long drive to the Phobjikha valley.  We had the back seat in the bus and Nancy had the wheel well.  It was most uncomfortable as the bus eased and bounced over the terrible rough and torn up road for more than 4 hours.  By the time we reached Phobjikha it was pitch dark and the power was out in the valley, making it difficult to settle in to the guest house, a fairly large building that was once a farmhouse.  

We gathered in a central room around an iron wood stove in the middle of the room.  The heat felt good as the nights get cold and damp.  A good dinner was served, and we retired to our room with its hand painted walls and a huge double bed with hot water bottles and some beautiful hand-loomed and very thick covers to keep us warm.  It felt like luxury after camping.  Early the next morning we both wanted to shower.  There were 2 central bathrooms and we couldn’t get hot water at one but luckily the 2nd one had hot water and we showered quickly, not knowing when the water would run out!  We saw 4 new birds today, bringing our total to 26 out of a total of 96 species we've seen on the trip.
The lumps in the bed are the hot water bottles!
 Friday, 11th November     Phobjikha to Trongsa

Today is the Black-necked Crane Festival, starting around 9:30 AM, and we set off at 8 am to walk about 3 miles up through this relatively wide, glacially-carved valley to see the cranes in the bottom lands, where they spend the winter, and end up at the Dzong to see some of the festival. Phobjikha (9,600 ft) is a designated conservation area which lies adjacent to Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park (formerly called Black Mountain National Park). Because of the presence of the large flock of Black-necked Cranes that winters in the valley -- about 260 of them -- Phobjikha is one of the most important wildlife preserves in Bhutan. The first cranes arrived from Tibet just 3 days ago, and we counted 48 of them.  The rest will arrive in the coming days.  Nancy found it difficult to photograph them as the cranes were far away and we did not want to stalk them. However, she got an excellent flight shot.

The hike climbed mainly through grassland that is grazed by cattle.  At one point it entered a small forest and the shade was most welcome.  Nancy carried her camera and 2 lenses as she wanted to have them for the festival.  However she discovered our bus had arrived at the festival and she could have left them on the bus and would not have had to lug all the weight up the long trail.

The festival celebrates the cranes’ arrival.  It was started by our guide Hishey, when he worked for the Department of Conservation, to bring income from ecotourism to the valley and generate publicity about the endangered cranes.  The dirt track leading up to the festival was lined with flea market type sellers with their wares spread out on tarps on the ground.  You could buy beautiful traditional clothing, cheap plastic stuff and bags of fresh hot chilies.  Once inside the monastery court yard, crowds of local folks with their kids laid out sitting mats and surrounded the dance area.  

By the time we arrived it was hard to find a good place to view the dancers.  Chuck found a place on the VIP dias, but Nancy wanted to take pictures and stayed down in the crowd.  However, she found it nearly impossible to avoid people’s heads when photographing.  The women dancers were dressed in beautiful ornate traditional clothes and performed stylized type dances.  Representing the cranes were 3 people dressed in huge crane-like costumes with long, long necks that towered over everyone.  It was easy to see these “necks” were hard to control as they dipped and bowed. These “cranes” frequently came out to the dance area and strutted around.  Then a troupe of men in very colorful animal head masks and elaborate outfits with flouncing skirts danced in wild abandon.  It was very interesting as the masks were obviously meaningful and the dancers told some sort of story known to all but us tourists!  However it was easy to feel the energy and enthusiasm of the dancers and enjoy the brilliant colors and masks. Nancy took lots of photos of the swirling dancers.

After enjoying an hour of dancing, we left this beautiful valley, returned to the main road, and headed up to continue east over Pele La pass (11,286 ft), where our support crew had a hot lunch waiting.  The crew always set up tables and chairs for us.  Lunch was usually 4 pots of food, one always rice, and the others a mystery veggie, a potato/veggie curry and then roughly chopped chicken or pork in some sauce.  Sometimes there was a big salad platter. The cook is really a well-known and respected chef who apparently got tired of the stresses of the big kitchens and now cooks out of the back of a truck for Hishey’s company.  The food was always good and imaginative.  
After lunch we walked part way down from the pass, then alternately walked and rode as we descended down through the beautiful old-growth forest of the Black Mountains. The Bhutanese film "Trav­elers' and Magicians" was shot along this road, and we stopped to photograph some of the rock paintings done for the film. Hishey also called in a small flock of Golden-breasted Fulvettas for Nancy to photograph.  We drove through the very picturesque village of Rukubji, built on the head of a snake-shaped ridge car­peted in bright-yellow-blooming mustard. We also passed through the village of Chendebji which has a beautiful Nepalese-style chorten next to the river. We arrived in Trongsa after dark and checked into a beautiful new hotel with spacious rooms and a great shower.  Dinner at the hotel was also excellent.  We repacked in preparation for 3 consecutive nights camping and turned in.

Saturday, 12th November     Trongsa to Gayzamchu camp

Bhutanese Cloth
We awakened to drizzle after having only clear skies so far in Bhutan.  We had early coffee and tea and headed out for a day of driving through fog on narrow mountain roads.  We headed east today to the Bumthang Valley, the cultural heartland of Bhutan. From Trongsa, the road climbed through many switchbacks, then passed through a misty forest of Silver Firs and bamboo on the way to Yotong La (11,234 ft). Soon after the pass, the forest changed to the Blue Pines characteristic of Bumthang. After about 30 minutes of driving through the pine forest, we arrived at Gyetsa, at the upper end of the Chhume Valley-- the first of Bumthang's four major valleys. Gyetsa is the winter home of several Black-necked Cranes, but because they tend to arrive later than Phobjikha's cranes, we did not find them in residence. After driving the length of the Chhume valley, we stopped at Zungney to watch local women weaving yathra -- Bumthang's famous hand-spun, hand-woven, and boldly patterned woolens -- and do a little shopping.  Nancy bought a finely embroidered wall hanging making our significant contribution to Bhutan's Gross National Happiness.
Rugs for sale.
Ladies' Weaving Co-op
Nancy shopping
After continuing on through the town of Chamkar, we entered the beautiful alpine valley of Ura, but we could see virtually nothing because of the fog.  After Ura, we camped at a rural spot called Gayzamchu for the nearby river.  It was dark by the time we reached camp, and at an altitude of 11,500 feet, it was cold.  But the support crew had a huge fire going and we gathered around it after settling into our tents.

We saw two new birds on the high elevation road as we drove the last stretch toward our camp, a fleeing female Kalij Pheasant and two sightings of Blood Pheasant coveys, one of them at least 24 birds.  We now have 114 species for the trip, 32 of them new.

Sunday, 13th November     Gayzamchu-Yongkola

Dark-rumped Rose-finch
It was another cloudy day but because of it the temperature wasn't bitter despite our high altitude.  Actually, we were quite comfy in our tent under all the covers. The tough part was getting out from under all those warm blankets and getting dressed!  The crew had coffee and breakfast ready for us at 6:30 am, and we took a walk up the road looking for pheasants.  Unfortunately, we saw none but we had very good views of the loud Spotted Laughingthrush.  The bus came along and picked us up and we birded our way up to the crest of Thrimsingla Pass at 12,400 feet.  Along the way we saw the Dark-rumped Rosefinch, another new bird for us. ­ 

Our bus way ahead on the narrow mountain road.
From the pass, the road descended very quickly and hence we saw a tremendous diversity within a matter of a few hours drive. In fact, we descended nearly 7,000 feet from the pass to our camp at Yongkola.  The road, one of Bhutan's main roads, was single lane with only intermittent places to squeak by other vehicles.  And it was carved out of the side of steep mountains with a drop in many places of way more than 1000 feet straight down from the edge of the road.  And there were rarely any guardrails.  Since it was so foggy most of the time we did not stop much to bird.  We did climb down a hill to look for Ward's Trogon but no luck. Our hearts leaped when we saw a large bird sitting on a horizontal branch, but it was only a Barred Cuckoo-dove.  We did see the Hoary-throated Barwing in a mixed flock and as we approached Yongkhola we saw a Scaly Laughingthrush alongside the road, bringing our total new birds for the day to four.  We now have a total of 128 species, 36 of them new.
Barred Cuckoo-dove
We also stopped at a stream to look for water redstarts, dippers and other riverine birds.  We were delighted to get a good look at another Ibisbill.
Our camp in the village of Yongkola, at about 5400 feet, included a large building with electricity, where we took our meals.  Since the weather has now turned gray, damp and misty, it was wonderful to have a building to have our meals in.  There was no heat of course, but it was dry and the crew had a large space to comfortably prepare our meals. The building belongs to Hishey, who plans to build 8 or 9 chalets and turn the building into a dining hall.

Monday, 14th November     Yongkola

Rusty-fronted Bar-wing
This morning we woke to the sound of children singing and calling out the alphabet and numbers.  There was a house very nearby and the family was up before dawn.  It was all very cheerful sounding and more effective than a rooster!  We spent the day birding around Yongkola.  New birds were Gray-hooded Warbler, Rufous-necked Hornbill and Darjeeling Woodpecker.  We had excellent views of several others that we had seen only fleetingly in Thailand or Yunnan.  Our totals now are 147 species, 39 of them new.  We spent our second night in the tented camp at Yongkhola.

Tuesday, 15th November    Yongkhola-Chamkar

We set off at 6:20 am to wind our way up the tortuous mountain road to Thrimsingla Pass.  We stopped when we saw flocks but these were few and far between and yielded only one new bird for us, the Scarlet Finch.  This road has got to be experienced to be believed.  Landslides from the monsoons were still being cleared away. We had to stop for one clearance operation, and then drive across this narrow rough patch when the steam shovel and front-end loader moved out of the way.  It was several hundred feet straight down from the road edge.  We stopped for lunch at a roadhouse at Gayzamchu just above where we camped three nights before.  For some reason, our support crew made a less than satisfactory lunch, which Nancy found particularly difficult to handle.  However there was a small stove in the dark building and the warmth felt good.  The days are still cold, gray and misty and at times, snowy.  After lunch, we walked down toward our campground site where we had fleeting views of the White-throated Redstart, which we followed down into the campground but to no avail.  It was quite cold up at this altitude of 11,700 feet. It was snowing lightly and we were driving in and out of the clouds.  
Chuck at Chamkar guest house.
We continued on through the Ura Valley, a wide, glacially-carved valley that is all farms.  Then up again to the next valley of the Baumthang region and on to the town of Chamkar and a family-run guesthouse with individual wood stoves in the rooms for heat.  The rooms were large, warm and the shower had hot water.  Nancy washed clothes and Chuck hung a line over the wood stove so the clothes would dry overnight. We have seen 152 species, 41 of them new.

Wednesday, 16th November    Chamkar - Khosola
The Bumthang area is renowned for its locally produced foods - delicious cheeses, apple juice and brandy and buckwheat pancakes.  At breakfast, the buckwheat pancakes and cheese were wonderful.  Even Nancy could eat the pancakes as they were gluten-free, and thoroughly enjoyed them.  They were especially good when topped with the local honey.  But after breakfast, the day went downhill.  It was still extremely cloudy, foggy, drizzly and snowy up high, producing a cold dampness that penetrated our several layers of clothing when we stepped out of the bus.  
Even though we were in some good habitat including at a couple of high passes, it was too foggy to bird and the foul weather seemed to have made the birds very scarce.  This was a huge disappointment.  But we had a long way to go today over very bad roads, so we wouldn't have had a lot of time to bird anyway.  
Trongsa Dzong

We did stop at the 16th century Trongsa Dzong, a huge fortress that dominated the east-west trade in this region and made the local lord very powerful.  Since many folks in our group were especially interested in the Bhutanese culture we made a tour of this dzong and Hishey described the story behind one of the complex murals that was on the wall.  It was about the circle of existence according to the Bhuddist beliefs and was quite interesting.  The detail in which the mural was painted was extraordinary.  We turned south at Trongsa and descended in elevation along the Mangde Chhu Valley, where we stopped twice to admire small troupes of the rare Golden Langur across the valley.  We also attracted a cute little Collared Owlet that posed very nicely for photos.  

We finally pulled into our roadside camp at Khosola after dark.  It was a tiny park with a gazebo.  The tents were pitched quite close together to fit them all in the space. The support crew was ready for us and served dinner under the gazebo, very welcome as it was still misty and foggy though less cold as we had descended to about 5200 feet of elevation. The park was on a hairpin turn and for those light sleepers, the trucks passing during the night were loud and alarmingly close.  We had no new birds today.  Our trip list now stands at 156 total species, 41 of them new.  We also encountered at least that many children!

Every morning and every night our crew loaded and unloaded all of our duffles and suitcases from the top of the bus and carefully covered them with a tarp.  Some of the guys asked if maybe we put rocks in our bags?!  The road crew was wonderful and seemed to anticipate our every need.  They did not speak much English, or maybe they were unsure of themselves, but they seemed to understand the basics of what we said.  They all worked together in harmony with efficiency and laughter.  We greatly appreciated all that they did!
The support crew and guides.
Thursday, 17th November     Khosola to Tingtibi

This morning we headed out at 5:30 am and drove 1 1/2 hours to the Beautiful Nuthatch habitat. This bird was very high on our target list as the only other place it is found is in northern Burma, not a place we’ll ever visit.  We spent two hours before breakfast looking for it where it is regularly seen but we were completely skunked.  We did get two new birds, the Black-chinned Yuhina and the Blue-winged Laughingthrush, as well as a Giant Squirrel with its very long tail.  We saw a Mountain Hawk-eagle with its long crest perched high in a tree, and Nancy photographed Macaques in the trees near our breakfast table set up alongside the road.  

After birding this location thoroughly, we con­tinued south, again birding along the way. Our daily routine was in the bus and drive, out of the bus and walk, in the bus and drive, and so on.  Each day everyone would rotate to a new seat, so those in front of the bus gradually moved to the back of the bus, as all seats were not equal in comfort and viewing possibilities. We saw one more lifer, the White-naped Yuhina, and we saw several troupes of the Golden Langur, a beautiful blond monkey with a long tail found only in Bhutan and a small part of India.

In general, the whole area was very birdy, a welcome change from the past few days, no doubt due to the fact that the wet weather system was moving out and the hills were bathed in intermittent sunshine.  We watched raptors soaring over the ridge, including a Eurasian Buzzard.  We also saw an Oriental Honey-buzzard swoop down to a cliff face and take a big bite out of a honey comb.  

Beehives on a cliff face.
There were some 30 bee hives hanging from that cliff along with scores of mud nests built there by martins for the protection afforded by the bees.  We had lunch along the road like we did breakfast and continued birding, including continuing our fruitless search for the Beautiful Nuthatch.  We arrived after dark at our campsite along a river south of Zhemgang near the village of Tingtibi for two nights.  We had descended to 2200 feet making the evening temperature much more comfortable. With the three new birds today, we now have 44 lifers and 174 total species.  We saw 68 species today.

Friday, 18th November     Tingtibi

With better weather, today was an intensive birding day.  We worked both lower and higher elevations, seeing approximately 70 species.  We both got three new birds, Rufous-bellied Eagle, Nepal Martin and Broad-billed Warbler.  In addition, Chuck got a glimpse of the Scaly-breasted Wren-babbler.  We did not get our two main targets, the Pallas' Fish-eagle and the Beautiful Nuthatch, though we looked long and hard for them both.  We had lunch back at our camp along the Mangde Chhu and returned there for the night.  At lunch, we enjoyed photographing the village children, who were thrilled to see themselves in the little camera screen. 

We also photographed a village home with a very large painted penis & scrotum on its wall.  We were repeatedly amused by the wide-spread use of phallic symbols on homes and buildings throughout the country.  It was quite common to see a carved wooden penis hanging from the eaves of a home, or painted on the wall – which we dubbed “wiener walls!”  Our combined totals now stand at 199 for the trip, 48 of them new.

Saturday, 19th November     Tingtibi-Gelephu

If Bhutan has 100 meters of straight road, we haven't seen it yet.  Today, up until the last hour, was no exception.  There was one switch-back after another on the road south from Tingtibi up over a pass at 7100 feet and down the other side toward Gelephu.  After crossing the pass into southern Bhutan, we went through one landslide after another that had come down in the monsoon and was pushed over the cliff by bulldozers to reopen the road.  We birded at the pass and saw several species but nothing new.  We went through an area with a large number of beehives hanging on a cliff face.  These bees recently attacked a car causing the driver to lose control and drive over a cliff.  Now there is a warning sign "Beware of Bees."  When we stopped for lunch in a gazebo with an extraordinary view we spotted Yellow-breasted Greenfinch.  Unfortunately, Nancy did not see it, and we searched the area but the little flocks of finches had gone elsewhere.  We also had excellent views of Rusty-cheeked Laughingthrush below the gazebo.  We had seen this species a few days ago but not this well.  From one vantage point, we had beautiful views in the sun of Gangkhar Phuensun, the highest unclimbed mountain in the Himalayas.  
Gangkhar Phuensun
The extent of virgin forest cover in Bhutan continued to impress us as we were greeted by ever more rich forest as we rounded every bend.  According to Hishey, 73% of the country is covered by forest or alpine, and the Bhutanese park service manages 50% of all the land in Bhutan.  The Bhutanese constitution stipulates that 60% of the country's land must remain pristine.  

We were stopped at one point for nearly an hour as a steam shovel cleared rock to widen the road at a point where there had been a landslide.  We walked through the work area (something we would never had been allowed to do in the U.S.) and birded down the road until the work paused for traffic and our bus could drive through. As we approached Gelephu, our support crew had tea for us at a chorten.  While sipping tea, we had great views of a pair of Great Hornbill. From this vantage point, we could see out over the Duar Plains into Assam.  We finished our descent and walked across a bridge while our excellent driver, Dorji, showed our papers to the officials, as we were so near the India border.  Then for the first time here in Bhutan we had a straight road across the biggest expanse of flat land in this country.  The story is that to determine the Bhutan/India border, a rock was rolled down the mountainside and where it stopped, that was the border.  This flat wide area is really only about a mile wide until it becomes India.  We drove on into Gelephu, a town of about 9000 people sitting at an elevation of 1250 feet, and checked into the modest Hotel Kuku.  The shower head was in the middle of the bathroom getting everything all wet, but it felt very good.  Dinner was a marvelous array of dishes with an Indian flare.  We have seen 205 species to date.  Chuck's sighting of the greenfinch was our only new bird today, bringing our combined total to 49.
Spotted Forktail
Slaty-backed Forktail
Sunday, 20th November     Gelephu to Darachu/Sarpang District

We had coffee at 5:30 am and headed out for what turned out to be a very productive morning's birding.  We walked a lowland road and trail and saw 37 species, including 3 new ones for us:  Greater Flameback, Slaty-headed or Himalayan Parakeet, and Jungle Myna.  We returned to the Hotel Kuku for breakfast, then walked over to the outdoor market.  It runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday and is primarily a vegetable and clothing market.  The ethnic diversity was quite a contrast to the other Bhutanese towns with a mix of Bhutanese, Nepalis and Indian Hindus.  We headed off on the next leg of our journey travelling 30 km on the plain before heading back up into the hills at the town of Sarpang.  On our way up, we stopped to identify another new bird, 7 Himalayan Griffons soaring high in the sky above a ridge.  We walked on the road through the forest seeing birds we have seen before.  Just 2 km from our camp, Hishey spotted Gray-sided Laughingthrushes and with his playback we managed to pull one out for a very brief look.  This brought our day's total of life birds to five.  
Crested Serpent-eagle
Our camp was perched on a sandbank 15 feet above the edge of the road, and it wasn't very big so our tents were pitched right next to each other.  But it was chosen to put us into position for the next day's birding.  It was at 6640 feet of altitude and quite cool and was on the edge of the hamlet Darachu.  We saw a total of 65 birds today bringing our trip totals to 227 with 54 life birds collectively.

Dogs seem to be everywhere in Bhutan and yet belong to nobody in particular.  At nearly every camp a few dogs appeared and stayed around.  At this camp a skinny little mutt female caught our attention.  She was shy but finally was won over by feeding her scraps of Spam that was part of our breakfast.  We think our crew also fed the dogs any leftovers.  The dogs seem to live on community leftovers and scavenging.  A spay/neuter program is certainly needed here.

Monday, 21st November     Sarpang District/Darachu

Beautiful Nuthatch
We spent the morning birding the road down from our camp and finally saw one of our most coveted birds, the Beautiful Nuthatch.  There was not one of them but four birds all feeding vigorously on a moss-covered tree right next to the road. Nancy even managed to get some good shots of this rare bird. Everyone was overjoyed and now in high spirits.  
This area was very birdy and we enjoyed combing through several flocks.  In one of them, Chuck saw a Red-throated Thrush, another lifer, and Nancy and Tim saw a Long-tailed Thrush, which she had seen in Thimpu but which Chuck has yet to see.  We returned to camp when bird activity died down in late morning and had a delightful bit of downtime in the sun before lunch.  After lunch, we drove 2 km up to a microwave tower and walked down the road to see what birds we could find.  To our delight, Kenna Sue spotted 3 Maroon-backed Accentors feeding along the edge of the road.  Then back to camp around 3:30 pm when bird activity again died with the onset of cooler air typical when the sun drops behind the mountains.  At the end of the day, we took a short ride down the hill to look for birds.  We saw one interesting species, a Crimson-breasted Woodpecker.  We saw 45 birds today, 3 of them new, bringing our trip totals to 232 species, 57 of them new for us collectively.

Tuesday, 22nd November     Darachu to Dochu La

Striated Laughingthrush
We started out walking from our campsite and almost immediately came upon a small flock of very good birds:  both barwings, a scimitar-babbler and a laughingthrush.  Then it was into the bus for a very long drive north to Dochu La Pass.  The total distance was only 135 km but on these tortuous mountain roads, we could only average 20 or 30 km per hour. We followed one of Bhutan's four major river systems, the Punak Tsang Chhu (or Sankosh). This drainage originates high in the Bhutan Himalayas as the Po and Mo Chhu, which we visited and camped along on Day 3 at Punakha. We stopped for a brief visit to a small, one-dirt-street town, Damchu, where Chuck bought the best chocolate eclair ever.  Many of us needed a bathroom and one was finally located in the basement of a tiny hotel.  As we filed in and out, the owner seemed pleased to talk to us.  We don’t think many tourists get this way and seeing Americans was exciting.  The support crew had lunch waiting for us alongside the road, and then it was back in the bus to wend our way through a 20 mile stretch of construction where a huge, 500 megawatt hydroelectric project is being built.  

The power will be sold to India, and current hydro projects already provide a good share of Bhutan's foreign exchange earnings.  We stopped for tea and to stretch our legs at a very nice hotel in Wangdi.  

Common Kestrel
On our way there we spotted a Pallas' Fish-eagle out the bus window coming across the river carrying a large fish.  There was a lot of traffic and unfortunately Dorji could not stop the bus in time for a longer look as it flew across and then disappeared over a ridge.  But we at least had acceptable looks at this prime target that we had been looking for all day as we drove along this big river.  And it was a good thing too, as we left the river at that point to climb up to the pass.  We arrived at the unique mountain lodge at Dochu La around 5:30 pm.  It is perched on the mountainside at 10260 feet of altitude just below the top of the pass.  It is owned by a former Buddhist monk.  Our room was quite spacious and the hot water was great.  We had dinner and watched a wonderful documentary of a soccer match in 2002 between lowest ranked Bhutan and Montserrat.  We have now seen 236 birds,
                                                                                58 of them new.

Wednesday, 23d November     Dochula-Paro

We got up before dawn to go out on the balcony and watch the rising sun illuminate, one by one, the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas spread out in a dramatic panorama on the horizon. Two of the distant peaks rose to above 23,000 feet above sea level, one of them topping out at 23,750. 
First Light
Himalayan Sunrise
After breakfast, and packing up, we started walking up to the pass.  Bob quickly spotted a small bird in a bare tree and it turned out to be a new bird for us, the Robin Accentor.  We walked around the 108 chortens and temple at the pass looking for the Fire-tailed Myzornis but to no avail.  Then it was onto the bus for the drive to Thimpu and Paro.  We stopped for lunch at an ornately painted restaurant part way up the hill from where we will start hiking up to the Taktsang, the famous Tiger's Nest monastery. Once again, the restaurant didn't follow instructions and used wheat-based soy sauce in most of the dishes, leaving Nancy little from which to choose.  At the hotel restaurants this has been a recurring problem.

Tiger's Nest sits halfway up a massive cliff.
We drove a short distance up the road to a parking area, at an elevation of 8,750 feet, to set off on our climb up to the Tiger's Nest.  It is Bhutan's most famous monument, and one of the most venerated pilgrimage sites in the Himalayan world. It is perched on the side of a cliff at 10,500 feet, or 2,950 ft above the floor of the Paro valley. Our steep hike took us 2,000 feet in elevation gain to a tea house, where tea is served gratis, and much appreciated after the first part of the very steep hike.  We then climbed another 700 feet up to the famous lookout over the monastery.  From there, Chuck turned back, concerned about his knees, while Nancy went with the group down and up about 2,000 steps past a waterfall and into the mon­astery. Taktsang, which means "Tiger's Lair", is so called because Guru Rinpoche, who introduced Buddhism to Bhutan, is said to have arrived at the site (where he meditated in a cave for three months) in a miraculous manner-- flying on the back of a tigress. In 1998, a fire destroyed the main structure of Taktsang, but it has been rebuilt, with traditional materials and techniques, to its previous splendor. We both took lots of photos of this amazing set of buildings seemingly clinging to the sheer rocks of the steep mountainside.  

Nancy and a woman from Spain exchanged camera lenses to get different aspects.  Nancy had a telephoto and the woman had a wide angle lens.  Once Nancy reached the Tiger’s Nest, a policeman was there to be sure no one entered the monastery with cameras and that everyone had a shirt with a collar.  T-shirts are considered disrespectable. Nancy reluctantly put her camera on a wooden shelf and entered the monastery.  The group only had a short time at the monastery as the sun was starting to set.  Nancy & the group visited the “guru cave” which was set up with the Buddhist statues and symbolic gifts.  
Chuck waited for Nancy back at the tea house.  The steep hike back down was almost as arduous as the hike up, and we finished in the dark.  Nancy felt very accomplished for making the entire journey.  We spent the night at the Jenka Hotel in Paro, at an altitude of 8200 feet.  As the rooms are all different, each couple simply grabbed a key.  It turned out that we got the best room.  It was large and spacious and quite new.  It also was lined with windows for a view.  For once we had a large bed to share instead of single beds or cots. It is owned by Hishey's cousin who built it on part of the family's farm, and it sits among rice paddies.  The shower was wonderful after two nights camping.  We've now seen 239 species, 59 of them new for us collectively.

Thursday, 24th November     Paro

We left the hotel at 4:30 am to drive up to Chelela pass, which at 13,080 ft is the highest road point in Bhutan. We left so early in the hopes of seeing the stunning Monal Pheasants in the dawn light and to arrive at the pass by sunrise.  We saw not a single pheasant on the way up, to Hishey's great surprise and our disappointment.  But we did get to the pass in time to watch and photograph the rising sun slowly illuminate the distant snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas on the Bhutan/Tibet border. It was truly a spectacular sight.  

The support crew fed us breakfast at the top of the pass and we felt we were at the top of the world!  The top of the pass was crowded with prayer flags, both on tall vertical polls and those stretched horizontally.  You get used to seeing these prayer flags in areas of winds.  It is traditional to hang these flags and they are supposed to fade and fray, signifying that the prayers have been sent to the heavens.  More and more flags are hung in the same areas and pretty soon it looks like a mass of tattered clothing, although with good intent.  

Through a cell phone call Hishey learned that the watchman at the Tashicell tower up there had been hunting pheasants, and we surmised that he had shot them all out.  It was maddening to us to hear of this.  Hishey called the Managing Director of Tashicell, a friend of his, and the watchman is likely to lose his job.  We finally did see Blood and Kalij Pheasants on the way down at a much lower elevation, well beyond the watchman's reach but too low for Monal.  

Yaks were present on nearly all of the high passes.  We stopped several times to photograph these furry bovines.

Alpine Accentor
Our birding up above was productive, though.  We saw 4 new species:  Alpine Accentor, White-browed Rosefinch, Collared Grosbeak and White-collared Blackbird.  Some people opted to hike along the high ridge instead of birding.  After lunch laid out by the crew, we returned to Paro.  Nancy and several others went shopping.   Our bus driver, Dorji, played some very nice Bhutanese music on the bus and Nancy wanted to get some of those CD’s while the others wanted things to bring home and some of the beautiful traditional cloths.  

At the hotel, we showered and were helped into traditional Bhutanese dress, a Goh for Chuck and a Kira for Nancy.  In the girl’s dressing area, the hotel young ladies helped us put on the unfamiliar Kiras.  We all had a lot of fun and laughs as we picked out our outfits and marveled how the women lived in these long, straight skirts. We had even seen women working on the road crews in these type of skirts!  We all  posed for pictures.  

Then we headed off to Hishey's family farm for a traditional Bhutanese feast. We had a tour of the farm, which is operated by his youngest brother, who was chosen to help his mother with the farm rather than go to school.  To add to the available labor it was arranged for him to marry a woman from the next valley who was 5 years older than he. This all happened when he was just 15 and apparently was rather hesitant to share his bedroom with a strange woman!  We are told they are now a close couple.  An older brother is a Permanent Secretary in a government ministry, so the family spans all levels of Bhutanese society.  Highlight of our evening was a traditional music troupe, consisting of 6 lovely girls as dancer/singers, 2 female lead singers, and two guys playing traditional stringed instruments, one somewhat similar to a hammer dulcimer.  We sat around a big fire in the house courtyard, drank and ate, and enjoyed the music which lasted all evening. Nancy and some of the others in our group joined in the dancing.  It was a truly lovely evening and a nice way to say farewell to Bhutan.

During our trip, we saw 244 bird species, 63 of which were new for us collectively, and we saw several new mammals, including several troupes of the rare Golden Langur.


  1. Awesome collections and thanks you for all the valid informations put well-stated. great time ahead

  2. Awesome collections and thanks you for all the valid informations put well-stated. great time ahead