Land of the Thunder Dragon
Most Birders' hearts will start banging away at the mention of Bhutan, this little explored Kingdom in the middle of the Himalayas. I had been toying with the idea of going there for ages, but time, and financial constraints, forced me to put it off for a few years. Then, whilst visiting Mongolia with my parents last year, we (my parents, my wife, and I) decided to take the plunge. The trip was not a birding trip per se. Of course, Ha and I wanted to see birds but, as we never had been to either country, culture was to play a large part in this trip.
I had read Paul Prevett's and Candy McManiman's excellent report and, like them, decided to contact Gurudongma Tours and Treks: http://www.gurudongma.com/. They specialize in Northern India, but work with their partner in Bhutan, Rainbow Tours & Trek: firstname.lastname@example.org. Both Jimmy Singh, owner of Gurudongma, and Ms. Sonam, charismatic owner of Rainbow, were of excellent help, never tiring of all my questions.
After gazillions of e-mails, we decided on two weeks of Bhutan and one week in West Bengal and Sikkim.
It is no longer true that visitors have to fly at least one way when visiting Bhutan but, as it was more convenient for us, we flew into Paro and left overland, via Phuentsholing. Paro is serviced from Kolkata, Delhi, and Bangkok. As we had to meet my parents, we flew to Delhi via Bangkok and thence to Paro. Visitors must have tickets and Visas approvals in hand, as they will not get on the plane otherwise. The final visa is issued upon arrival in Bhutan, at a cost of USD 20.00.
Sikkim is a restricted area and visitors must have an endorsement from the Indian Embassy or Consulate. However, none of us managed to get this endorsement, with the respective Embassies/Consulates claiming ignorance, even when presented with the procedure from the Sikkim Government. No worries though, the General's daughter, Cathy, managed to get the necessary permits whilst we were in West Bengal.
For groups of three guests or more, the daily flat fee for Bhutan is USD 180.00 per person (although I heard rumors that this might soon be increased). This fee includes car, driver, guide, food, accommodation, and as much tea as you want.
In India, we paid USD 110.00 per person and day. This, however, included two cars, as Ha and I wanted to go birding, whereas my parents were more into the cultural thing.
Both countries are fairly cheap, with a large, and good, beer being around USD 2.00 and soft drinks half that.
I tend to be a generous tipper, working in a hotel myself, and tips were appreciated everywhere. As a guideline: USD 1.00 per suitcase, 10% of the drinks and/or food bill, a couple of USD for the Housekeeping staff.
1 USD = 44 Indian Rupees = 44 Bhutanese Ngu. A word of advice: Rupees are accepted everywhere, but not the 500 Rs or 1000 Rs notes. Currently, nobody in Bhutan accepts Master Card for payment, only Visa Card. Cards can generally only be used in larger hotels and shops in Bhutan, but I had no problems changing USD.
Note for smokers:
The sale of cigarettes is now forbidden throughout Bhutan, so stock up. You will have to pay 200% tax on cigarettes when entering Bhutan (if you declare them, that is:-)))
And a note for people who enjoy a good beer after birding:
The beer, all from India, is quite good. I particularly liked the "Hit", a fairly strong lager type of beer. The different provinces have "dry" days on varying days of the week, the sale of alcoholic beverages is not allowed on those days. Oh, and no alcohol on Indian Airlines:-(
Accommodation and food:
We had a few days in Delhi, and stayed at the Oberoi Maidens. One of the more reasonable hotels, they offered as a Suite for USD 125.00. This is cheap for Delhi Standards, and the food was extremely good.
Both in Bhutan and NE India the accommodation ranged from very basic to average, but at least the rooms were generally clean.
I was looking forward to Indian food but must say that we were all very disappointed. The food was very often below par, I can get better Indian food here in Saigon! In Bhutan, the food was very same-sameish, and just not spicy enough. The only exception was the Bhutanese dish of boiled Chilies served as a vegetable, hot enough to burn through the plate (and the stomach).
Due to avian flu, poultry products were rarely available, which made breakfast in particular quite disappointing (I do never, ever want to see another slice of toast with honey).
More notes on hotels and food in the detailed report below.
This and that:
Safety was never an issue apart, maybe, from the roads. In Bhutan in particular roads are very narrow, with often mind-boggling abysses on the side. Nobody uses a horn around corners, you would never know if a truck or bus would meet you in the corner. Having said that, we only saw two small accidents (not that you would see the vehicles that had gone over the edge).
Altitude was no problem, apart from the difficulties breathing, especially early during the trip.
Almost all hotels do laundry, more or less well. If I had known that beforehand, I would have lugged much less clothes with me.
Rainy season just about started and the first leeches started popping up both in Bhutan and India. Nothing serious, except for Ha, who would inevitably see them first, and was the only person to actually get nailed by one.
Hygiene was a problem though, in particular in India. We all got sick at the same time towards the end of the trip, and suspect a certain hotel in Sikkim. Nothing that some Imodium couldn't cure though.
We had a few good days early on, but then it was very often overcast, with occasional rain. Temperatures ranged from 44 degrees in Delhi to 8 degrees in Bhutan, which explains the huge suitcases we carried. Almost all hotels had wood stoves in the rooms to ward of frost-bite at night.
We had brought "Birds of Bhutan" by Inskipp and Grimmet, and "Birds of South Asia" by Rasmussen and Anderton. The latter has good illustrations, but it comes in two Volumes, making carrying it a pain.
A word of appreciation:
In Bhutan, I would like to thank Sonam who arranged this part for us, Norbu who is an excellent birder, all-around nice guy, knowledgeable guide and very flexible with difficult customers like us and, last but not least, Kuenzang our driver. A young chap, he literally had our lives in his hands, but he performed admirably as a driver.
In India, General Singh who did his part for the Indian part, his business partner Catherine who guided us one day, her brother Sudesh, another excellent birder and guide, and our driver Bhaichung. All above come highly recommended.
I would also like to thank my parents, Ralf and Juliane. Excellent companions, as usual, and Ralf's cigarettes saved the day.
Finally, my wife, fellow birder, official photographer, and love Ha. Short of the leeches, you held up admirably.
Comments, corrections, and suggestions can be sent to hannostamm"at"hotmail.com.
27th of April:
We arrived in Delhi around 02:00, after going through the mess that is Delhi airport. Make sure you get a taxi ticket from the official counter in the arrival hall; my parents, who separately came later, both got ripped off. After just a few hours, it was time for some birding around the hotel. The first thing we saw were lots and lots of Black Kites and House Crows. Maybe not spectacular, but quite a difference from Vietnam, where birds are virtually absent from cities and towns. The air was full of Parakeets, with Rose-ringed Parakeets nesting in nearby trees as well as in holes in the building's front. A Yellow-footed Green Pigeon showed off, whilst a couple of Plum-headed Parakeets were less obliging. Than our first lifer: a Indian Grey Hornbill. Maybe not the most spectacular as Hornbills go, but it was a great start. A nearby dead tree accommodated a flock of 20 or so Rosy Starlings, whilst another tree was the daytime roost of a Spotted Owlet. The Oriental Magpie Robins, Common Mynas, Asian Koel, Red-whiskered Bulbuls, and Oriental White-eyes were all familiar to us from Vietnam; this could not be said for the Brown-headed Barbets nesting, nor the Jungle Babblers.
My parents had by then also arrived, so we spent the rest of the day enjoying the hotel facilities; the food in particular was outstanding.
Being a Hornbill "freak", I went for the Indian Grey Hornbill as "bird of the day"; Ha chose the Brown-headed Barbets.
28th of April:
A quick tour around the hotel added Brahminy Starling, Alexandrine Parakeet, Indian Green Peafowl, and White-throated Kingfisher.
And off we were for some sight-seeing. I always thought Vietnam was pretty poor, but the cities here sure look much better than Delhi. I was not much impressed with the poverty and general neglect of what is, after all, the capital of the up-and-coming superpower. Ah well, at least the sightseeing tour added Asian Pied Starling and Red-wattled Lapwing to our trip list. After much asking around, we managed to locate the Druk Air office to pick up our tickets, and had an excellent Curry lunch in the only revolving restaurant in Delhi (yes, the waiter in that restaurant was somewhat perplexed when we asked for a table with a view, it took us some time to realize that the restaurant was indeed revolving. Blame it on jet lagJ).
Ha took the Indian Grey Hornbill, I the Brahminy Starling as "bird of the day".
29th of April:
Early start to visit one of the must-sees, the Taj Mahal. The trip took about 4 hours but was certainly not boring. Apart from the traffic, we were entertained by dozens of Indian Green Peafowl that seemed to have commandeered every water tower en route. During the trip, we also saw our first Bank Mynas and Black-shouldered Kites. Further entertainment came from an American traveler who asked us, during our breakfast stop what we were eating. They do not have Scrambled or Fried eggs in the States????
Taj Mahal is absolutely stunning in real live, but was it ever so hot. Vietnam is not exactly cold, but 44 degrees, with the heat reflecting off the white marble, was a bit of a shocker. All was soon forgotten though when an Egyptian Vulture decided to take a break right opposite the entrance to the Taj. Cattle Egrets kept on flying over, and a Shikra put the fear of God in the assembled Laughing Doves. It certainly was not too hot for the Black Drongos to keep on sallying for food.
For lunch, we had some of the worst Indian food we ever had, but I guess this is to be expected in such a tourist trap. At least the beer was cold, but soon enough it was back into the furnace to visit the Red Fort in Agra. It was really boiling, but at least we saw Brown Rock-Chat and a Little Cormorant, trying to cool off in the moat. Both Common Hoopoes and Five-striped Squirrels were all over the place.
On the way back, we stopped at some small ponds I had seen in the morning. Within minutes, we saw Little Grebe, Little and Cattle Egrets, Purple Heron, Indian Pond-heron, some more Egyptian Vultures, Black-winged Stilts, Wood, Green, and Common Sandpiper, two Lesser Pied Kingfishers, and both Spotted and Common Redshanks.
Ha and I both chose the Egyptian Vulture as our "bird of the day".
30th of April:
No birding today, just chilling out.
1st of May:
Off to Bhutan today. We had a little stop in Nepal, and excellent views of Mt. Everest, but the landing in Paro left me speechless. I am not a very good flier at the best of times, but I thought my last second had come! Paro Valley is very narrow, and the Pilot had to weave the plane around mountains and hills to get to the landing strip. Not something for people with delicate nerves, I would rather walk into Bhutan the next time.
Custom formalities were very short, and we were soon installed in our hotel, after a very poor lunch in a place called "Traveler's Restaurant". The hotel was the "Gangtey Palace", a bit of a misnomer but decent enough. Here, we also came across the first of what were to be thousands of Russet Sparrows and Oriental Turtle Doves, as well as some Large-billed Crows.
In the afternoon, we went to nearby Drukgye Zong. Zongs are large, castle-like buildings, housing both administration as well as Monks. This particular Zong had been destroyed by a fire (we would later learn that almost all Zongs had been burned down at one stage or another, the culprit usually being the butter lamps used as offerings). This did not deter the Spotted Nutcrackers hanging around. We would also soon learn that Grey-backed Shrikes are one of the more common birds in Bhutan, but the first one was still nice. Yet other birds that would prove to be extremely common were Blue Whistling Thrush and Green-backed Tit, whilst we would see the only Mountain Imperial Pigeon of the trip here. The Dark-sided Flycatcher was nice, even nicer was the Ultramarine Flycatcher.
After the Zong, Norbu, Ha and I headed for the river. The first birds we saw were White Wagtail and River Lapwing. However, prize of the day was a bird that had been one of the reasons I had wanted to come to Bhutan: Ibisbill!!! What absolutely stunning birds, even if they are a b@#$ch to find, they blend in extremely well with the gravel and rocks.
"Bird of the day" is obviously an unanimous decision for both Ha and myself: Ibisbill.
2nd of May:
We started early to reach Chelela Pass, on the way to Haa, before traffic started kicking in. This was also our first introduction to Bhutanese mountain roads. As we all normally live at, or close to, sea level, it was quite a hair-raising experience. There are no rails or borders, just a few hundred meters of thin air between the road and the valley bottom. We would eventually get used to it, except my mother that is, she apparently wants to go to the Netherlands for her next holiday.
Anyway, on to the birds. We had not been driving long, when we saw the first pheasants: a total of 8 Kalij Pheasants. What a start, and well worth the early departure. White-capped Water Redstarts were also very nice, but the next megas were Blood Pheasants, some of them right next to the road. Another beautiful lull in the form of Chestnut-bellied Rock-thrush, and then the last, and most spectacular Pheasant of the day, Himalayan Monal. All this within two hours, birding doesn't get much better than that.
It is almost a shame that the White-collared Blackbirds, Black-faced Laughingthrushes and a stunning, male, White-browed Rosefinch paled somewhat in comparison to the Pheasants.
After a cold breakfast on top of the pass, we headed on to our hotel for the night, the Risum Resort in Haa Valley. On the way there, we would see Red-billed Chough, Plumbeous Water Redstart, Speckled Woodpigeons, and Long-tailed Minivet.
We checked into the Rism Resort in time for lunch. The lodge was nice enough, but food was certainly so-so. Little did we know at the time that this was going to set the trend for the rest of the trip.
After lunch, my parents headed off to visit a Monastery, whilst Ha and I took a walk along the Haa River, which had us eventually end up bang in the middle of a Bhutanese-Indian Army camp, not that anyone took notice. It had become quite cool, with occasional drizzle, by now and bird activity was rather poor. However, another bird we did want to see obliged in the form of a Brown Dipper, and a White-winged Grosbeak gave us another tick just before yet another poor dinner.
Lots of contenders for "bird of the day", but the Himalayan Monal took honors for both of us.
5th of May:
Breakfast was a little better, though curry and Chapatis might not be everyone's idea of a good brekkie.
Today we were off to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. The road was pretty bad, and there was not much time for birding. However, I did finally score a bogie bird of mine, Yellow-billed Blue Magpie. Ha had seen it several times, both in Vietnam and Cambodia, but I had always been looking the other way.
Just before Thimphu, we stopped at a couple of pools, which were pretty empty. Most birds had already left for summer quarters, with the exception of three Eurasian Wigeon.
We checked into the Hotel Druk, where we had excellent lunch for a change, before heading to an enclosure where the national animal is kept, the Takin. A really bizarre looking beast. Around the enclosure, we also saw our first Black Eagles and a pair of White-collared Blackbirds. That just left enough time for some souvenir shopping before another excellent dinner.
Not many birds today, but my favorite was the Yellow-billed Blue Magpie, Ha liked the White-collared Blackbirds most.
4th of May:
Another early start to head for Togo, another Monastery a couple of hours away. On the way we stopped near a cliff with a lot of bee-hives. Norbu was looking for a very special bird here and, sure enough, within seconds we saw 3-4 of the critters: Yellow-rumped Honey-guides. Around the same area, we also had a flock of 20+ White-throated Laughingthrushes, Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, and a pair of Rufous-gorgeted Flycatchers. Really a great spot that did wonders for my life list.
In Togo, we headed up to the Monastery, which was quite a hike. At this Monastery, Monks meditate for 3 years, 3 months and 7 days; during that time no contact with other persons, or speaking is allowed (didn't dare ask if bird watching was OK). On the climb up, we had good views of Grey-winged Blackbirds, lots of Oriental Turtle-doves, and Rufous Sibias. The stunner however was a single male Scarlet Finch. We also added Himalayan Striped Squirrel to our Mammals list.
That evening, we were invited to Sonam's house for an outstanding dinner, the Momos, kind of Dim Sum, in particular were very good.
Ha was not impressed by the rarity of the Honey-guides and chose the Scarlet Finch as "bird of the day", I did take the Honey-guides.
5th of May:
Fairly long run to Wangdue today, towards the center of Bhutan. On the way, we stopped on top of the Dochula pass, at 3,000 meters, to do some birding. Upon getting out of the car, we could hear three different Cuckoos, with Indian, Oriental, and Large Hawk-Cuckoo all calling away. As a matter of fact, we would hear at least 2 or three species at almost every stop we made throughout our trip. New birds here were a male Rufous-bellied Niltava and a flock of Chestnut-tailed Minlas. We also saw an Orange-bellied Squirrel, whilst on the way down from the pass we had a group of Assamese Macaques.
We got to Wangdue just in time for lunch. Wangdue is quite low, for Bhutan standards, which would explain all the Common Mynas and Red-vented Bulbuls. We stayed at the Dragon's Nest Hotel, were views were exceptional and food pretty good.
After a little Siesta, we left for Punakha Zong, one of the nicest Zongs I saw. On the way there, we saw the only Crested Bunting of the trip, whilst staking out the river near the Zong produced our sole Crested Kingfisher.
On the way back from the Zong, we stopped at the "Divine Madman's" Pagoda. This Monk was not really mad, he just used some really drastic words and actions to bring across Buddhism to the people. Apparently, he is responsible for the National Animal, the Takin, too by creating this animal from the left-overs of one of his huge meals, including goat and cow. He also chased away a Demon by waving his you-know-what at it! Whilst Ha visited the Pagoda to find out how many children we will have in the future (8, apparently), I ticked off Lesser Coucal. Walking back, we had good views of a Raptor overhead, it turned out to be a Pallas's Fish-eagle.
"Bird of the day" was Crested Bunting for Ha and Pallas's Fish-eagle for me.
6th of May:
Whilst my parents slept in, Norbu, Kuenzang, Ha and I headed for Dochola. It was bloody cold at 04:30 in the morning, but the birds were well worth it. Grey Treepies were very common, as were Black and Mountain Bulbuls. A single Lesser Yellownape kept a lonely Orange-bellied Leafbird company, and we also saw our first Wedge-tailed Green Pigeons here. It was also a good spot for Babblers, with two groups of Streak-breasted and Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-babblers. I missed the Spotted Laughingthrush that Ha and Norbu had seen a couple of days earlier, but at least I saw Streaked Laughingthrush here. A big flock of Himalayan Swiftlets was wheeling overhead, whilst Great Barbet was heard only.
After breakfast, we took off for Trongsa, crossing the Pelela Pass at 3,300 meters. Not many birds here, but two Crested Serpent-eagles were nice. Even nicer were at least 12 Himalayan Vultures. They had only just began circling to gain height before heading off, if we had come a few minutes later, we would not have seen a single one.
Early in the afternoon we checked in at the Yangkhil Hotel. The hotel was very nice, with fantastic views, and the food was pretty good too.
Juliane had had enough of Bhutanese roads for the day, thus the rest of us headed to Kuengarabten, the old summer residence of the King. Luckily, I did not go inside the building, the others came out covered in Fleas. There was not much in the way of birds but, heading back to the hotel, we came across a group of Golden Langurs right next to the road.
As I like Vultures, the Himalayan Vulture is "bird of the day" for me, Ha gave first spot to the Streaked Laughingthrush.
7th of May:
I got up early whilst Ha wanted a bit of a lie-in. A beautiful morning, but cold at 14 degrees. Don't forget that I live in the Mekong Delta, people here take out their winter jackets when temperatures drop below 25 degrees.
Not much new around the hotel but, after hearing them constantly, I finally saw a male Eurasian Cuckoo. I also managed to finally snap a Fire-breasted Flowerpecker, they usually never sit still for a second.
At breakfast, Norbu gave us the bad news: the Festival we were supposed to visit in Ura had been postponed. Apparently the dates for the festivals, for which Bhutan is famous, are suggestions at best; if participants are busy, the dates are moved. Anyway, Norbu figured there would be another festival that we could visit in a couple of days. First, however, we had to make our way to Bumthang, crossing the Yontongla Pass.
As usual, we stopped at the pass for some birding. Here, we saw more White-throated Laughingthrushes, and added Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrushes.
Due to the changes in Festivals, we would stay at the River Lodge in Bumthang for two nights instead of one. This change in plans worked out quite well, at least we could all get our laundry done. Bumthang was pretty cold, and we only managed a little bit of birding before the rain drove us back for some hot tea. Walking along the river, we saw plenty of Oriental Skylarks and Black-billed Magpies. There were also at least two Ibisbills and a lone Common Stonechat.
Both Ha and I went for the Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrushes as "bird of the day".
8th of May:
Ha and I headed up the hill behind the hotel early. Compared to, say, South-East Asian rainforests, activity in those evergreen and mixed forests was often very slow. We worked very hard for a single Grey-headed Bullfinch, a male Slaty-blue Flycatcher, and a couple of White-browed Fulvettas joining forces with Red-tailed Minlas.
Most of the rest of the day was given over to some lazing around, but a visit to a nearby Monastery did turn up a Yellow-bellied Fantail.
Ha chose the Grey-headed Bullfinch as "bird of the day", I took the Red-tailed Minla.
9th of May:
Today we were off to Ura for two nights to hopefully see the festival the next day. A scenic drive, but not many birds, only livened up by a flock of 50+ White-winged Grosbeaks. There was more action at the Thrumshingla Pass, with all sorts of "small fry" in the shape of Mrs. Gould's Sunbird, White-browed Fulvetta, Chestnut-tailed Fulvetta, Rufous-vented Yuhina, Grey-crested Tit, Whistler's Warbler, and Lemon -rumped Warbler. An Orange-flanked Bush-robin gave good views; the two Blood Pheasants did not stay around for long.
From there, we went to the Festival in Domkhar. As it turned out, it was a good thing that the festival in Ura had been postponed. The festival here was much smaller, with hardly any tourists, it had a very intimate feeling. Ha got stuck into Ara, the local alcohol, pronouncing it almost as good as Vietnamese rice wine. I think she got pretty plastered, even though she denies it. We had a picnic lunch, and then headed back to the festival for some more action.
We got to Sinkhar quite late. I just had time for a quick spin, but did not see much except White-collared Blackbird, two Rufous-vented Tits, and loads of Green-backed Tits.
We stayed at the Sinkhar Lodge. Very basic, but clean; the food was decent and, with temperatures of 12 degrees, the beer had just the right temperature. Luckily, they also provided hot-water bottles for bed.
Ha enjoyed the Grey-crested Tit most, numero uno for me was the Rufous-vented Yuhina.
10th of May:
The coldest morning we would have throughout our trip, with a shocking 8 degrees. But we had paid to go birding, cold be damned. And the hot-water bottles were cold by now, anyway. The purely coniferous forest was not very productive, but we did add Common Rosefinch and Golden Bush-robin to our list.
Visiting a nearby village we took the opportunity to scour for eggs. Due to avian flu, the import of eggs and poultry from India had been banned, and we were all dying for eggs. Took some searching but, for the exorbitant prize of 10 Nu (ca. 25 Cents) a piece, we managed to secure 5 eggs. As a matter of fact, one does not see all that much livestock in Bhutan, as their religion forbids Bhutanese to slaughter animals. They do eat meat, but the gory details of dispatching the beasts are taken care of by Indians.
From here, we went to the opening of the Ura festival, which is a procession of holy items from the Monastery to the village. Regrettably, the whole thing was marred, for me at least, by hordes of very badly behaved tourists. There were a lot of people that were obviously on a photographic tour of Bhutan, if they saw a picture opportunity neither man nor beast were safe from being trampled into the ground. Ah well, it takes all sorts.
The night was spent at the River Lodge, where we also picked up our laundry we had left previously.
That was pretty much it for the day, we both chose Common Rosefinch as bird of the day.
11th of May:
Omelet for breakfast!!!!!!! Well, Ha ordered fried eggs, but they looked just like my Omelet. Sadly, both my parents did not feel like eating, leaving Ha and me to polish off the eggs we had bought the day before. Hard job, but somebody's gotta do it:-).
Today we would head to the Phobjikha Valley, wintering grounds of Black-naped Crane, long goneby now. Another quick stop at Yontongla Pass added White-throated Needletail and Grey-sided Bush-warbler to our list. Apart from that, nothing new, but I did see Aberrant Bush-warbler after lunch, whilst Ha was busy photographing flowers.
In the Phobjikha Valley we checked into the Dewachen Hotel. Brand new and very nice, great food; probably one of the best hotels we stayed in during our trip.
Not much to chose from, but Ha's "bird of the day" was Grey-sided Bush-warbler, whilst the speed and grace of the White-throated Needletails impressed me.
12th of May:
We only had one goal before breakfast: track down the Satyr Tragopan that had been heard behind the hotel the previous day. Whilst Ha was putting on make-up (don't ask, I don't know why ladies need make-up to go birding), I stepped out for a smoke and promptly heard the Tragopan calling. Norbu joined us, and we headed straight up behind the hotel, not at all deterred by the drizzle. Norbu started playing the tape in a likely spot, and within 5 minutes we got brief, but good, views of a male Satyr Tragopan. This completed the set of stamps with Pheasants we had bought in Thimphu.
Elated and happy, we headed for breakfast, flushing a Hill Partridge on the way, before hitting the road for Wangdue and the Dragon's Nest Hotel. On the way, we saw Asian Macaque as well as a Spot-winged Grosbeak. The Plain-backed Thrush just before Wangdue did its name justice, really not the most exciting bird I have ever seen.
After lunch we headed for the Jigme-Dorji National Park. Not long into the forest, a horrific scream split the air. First thinking somebody had been murdered, it turned out to be Ha that had picked up a leech whilst heading behind a bush. But she is getting better with leeches: were before she would be incoherent, she did manage to yell "leech" this time round.
Anyway, back to the birds. Grey Treepies, Golden-throated Barbets, Great Barbets, Black-chinned Yuhinas, and Striated Laughingthrushes were all extremely common here. We saw two Lesser Yellownapes and a female Bay Woodpecker, the first time I have had really good views of this species. There was a single Grey-chinned Minivet and a female Maroon Oriole. Heading back, we surprised a female Kalij Pheasant with a lonely chick.
Some good birds today, but the winner for the coveted "bird of the day" award was the Satyr Tragopan for both of us
13th of May:
Ha figured there wasn't much birding around the hotel, but I was so used to getting up early that I headed out anyway. Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-babblers were all around, but I was intrigued by an unknown whistling call from nearby. After much searching, the bird was found sitting in plain viewon a telephone wire, a male Grey-bellied Cuckoo. As I was still congratulating myself for my luck, the bird is not very common in Bhutan, a huge bird came flying across the river towards me. Could it be???? It was!!!! The bird circled lazily once above me before disappearing behind a ridge, giving me ample time to admire the White-bellied Heron. Never mind that that would be all the birding for the day, I had two Megas before breakfast.
An uneventful drive back to Thimphu followed, we were all looking forward to the excellent Curry at the Hotel Druk.
14th of May:
Today would be the long, and harrowing, drive to the border town of Phuentsholing. Lying in the small band of lowlands in the south of Bhutan, a lot of passes needed crossing before getting there. Luckily, it was Sunday and traffic somewhat less. The worst was the last pass before descending to the lowlands. We were blissfully unaware of the dangers; due to the dense fog we could not see anything. It was only afterwards that Norbu told us that that particular area is frequently hit by landslides!
Anyway, we had a leisurely cruise, adding Stripe-throated Yuhina and White-throated Fantail to our trip list.
Getting to Phuentsholing late in the afternoon, we came across some birds not previously seen. A Black-crowned Night-heron flew overhead, and both Jungle Myna and Chestnut-tailed Starlings were nesting in the hotel grounds. There was also a single Coppersmith Barbet calling away.
The Hotel Druk here was much worse than its counterpart in Thimphu, both room and food-wise.
A lack of really good birds meant that Ha's bird of the day was the White-throated Fantail; the Stripe-throated Yuhina did it for me.
15th of May:
Back into India, after some very basic border formalities (once the Immigration officer had been located). We said bye to Kuenzang and Norbu and headed towards Kalimpong, West Bengal. The drive took us through miles and miles of tea estates. Not many birds, but we did see quite a few Rhesus Macaques.
The Himalayan Hotel in Kalimpong is very nice indeed, being an old British Colonial Building, just ask for the old building if you ever stay there. The rate of USD 60.00 for as double room is very good value for money in my opinion. Lunch was a disappointment though, I had never eaten a Curry without spices before. Turned out that this was a misunderstanding: the staff thought we could not eat spicy food. Once this misunderstanding had been cleared out of the way, all subsequent meals were excellent.
The garden of the hotel is very nice, the Green-billed Malkoha obviously thought so, too. We also had White-rumped Munias and a Himalayan (White-eared) Bulbul. Ha and I headed for the town, but there wasn't really much to see except a Barn Swallow.
Before dinner, Cathy met us to check on the program. I had messed up somewhere, and we had arrived one day earlier than expected. That explained why they only sent a fairly small car to pick us up that morning. Our guide, Sudesh, would not get back until the next evening, so Cathy would take us to Lava forest the next day.
After an excellent dinner, and too many beers, it was off to bed, not before picking the Himalayan Bulbul as "bird of the day" for both of us.
16th of May:
As it got light at around 04:30, when I saw a Blue-throated Barbet behind the hotel, we were of at 05:00, heading for Lava.
About half-way to Lava we stopped to check out the Fauna. A couple of Grey-headed Canary-Flycatchers were flitting about, not to be outdone by the Whiskered Yuhinas. A pair of Scarlet Minivets were working overtime to get food to their nest. We almost missed a pair of Indian Pygmy Woodpeckers, it was Cathy that saw them. Due to the bad light it took us ages to identify two Treecreepers, but they finally came close enough to be nailed as Rusty-flanked Treecreepers. There were plenty of Black Eagles about once it got warmer.
After an excellent Picnic Curry lunch, where Ha once again found a couple of leeches, we continued further up, scoring Blue-headed Rock-thrush on the way. Two male Green-tailed Sunbirds were ducking it out, a Red-billed Leiothrix was much more elusive. Luckily I looked again at what I thought was just another Green-backed Tit, it turned out to be a Black-spotted Yellow Tit.
The excellent dinner at General Singh's house that evening was made even better by a couple of bottles of "Kingfisher" beer that my parents had dug up somewhere in Kalimpong. We also met Sudesh, who would be our guide from now on. My parents would continue with another car and guide as they were more into culture than birding. However, we would spend most nights in the same hotel.
Once again, Ha and I agreed on the same bird for "bird of the day": Red-billed Leiothrix.
17th of May:
A beautiful day with great views of the Kangghenjunga range rising up to 28,146 feet. Heading towards Lava, we saw Barred Cuckoo-dove and Green Magpie on the way. We passed right through Lava to the Neora valley. A White-tailed Robin was singing away, but refused to give views. The Mountain Hawk-eagle was more accommodating. Glimpses of bright orange turned out to be Golden-breasted Fulvettas, this has to be the nicest Fulvetta of them all. White-spectacled Warblers were pretty common, as were Red-tailed Minlas.
Another picnic lunch followed before we headed down a trail where we straightaway came across a Rufous-capped Babbler. Even better was a male Gold-naped Finch, close to a Black-eared Shrike-babbler. For a Babbler, the Streak-breasted Scimitar-babbler was not all that shy, whilst the Bar-throated Minla was a nice addition to our Minla list. It was time to head back as we did want to avoid driving in the dark, but not before ticking Red-headed Tit.
Dinner that evening was accompanied by the calls of a Brown Hawk-owl.
This is getting ridiculous, but Ha and I chose the same bird again, Gold naped Finch.
18th of May:
A not so early start to take us to the Yungsum Farm, a working farm growing a lot of fruit and Cardamom. Accommodation here is pretty basic, with decent food, and great views of the surrounding Mountain ranges. A fairly long drive and we did not get there until the afternoon, leaving just a couple of hours for birding.
Grey Treepies were all over the place, whilst we only heard the Crested Serpent-Eagle. We very quickly saw three species of Drongo, with Black, Ashy, and Bronzed Drongo all making an appearance. A Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker was a very nice find, as was the Greater Yellownape, but this was really the place for Flycatchers. As usual, Verditer Flycatchers were all over the place, less conspicuous were the Sapphire and Pale-blue Flycatchers. Standing on top of a ridge, we could actually hear the air rushing though the feathers of the White-throated Needletails, with Himalayan Swiftlets moving relatively more sedately. At that same ridge, two Upland Buzzards were soaring close enough to almost touch them.
Two Woodpeckers as "bird of the day" today: Ha chose the Greater Yellownape, I the Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker.
19th of May:
Ha did not feel like getting up this morning, so Sudesh and I headed off for Hilley, a mountain a good 3 hours drive away. Below an overhang, and just next to the road, Nepal House Martins were building there nests. Obviously a new nesting site, they did not seem to mind the traffic at all. Nearby, we also saw Chestnut-bellied and Blue-capped Rock-Thrush.
Hilley was looking miserable, with lots of fog and the threat of rain. Anyway, once we got breakfast out of the way, prepared by the Warden, we headed up the path towards the Rhododendron garden. Right next to the entrance, two Scaly Laughingthrushes were sorting through the left-overs thrown out from the kitchen. A female Grey-headed Bullfinch made a brief appearance and we had brief views of Rufous-winged Fulvettas before strong rain and hail drove us back to the Warden's office. Luckily, the rain cleared eventually and we headed back to the trail. I finally got views of a White-tailed Robin, we had frequently heard them from deep inside thick undergrowth. A Hoary-breasted Barwing was a "lifer" for me, but the highlight was a Slender-billed Scimitar-babbler. What a bizarre-looking bird, with the bill almost reaching its chest. A small bird-wave produced Golden-breasted and Rufous-winged Fulvettas, Red-tailed and Chestnut-tailed Minlas, Black-throated Tits, and Streak-breasted Scimitar-babblers. On the way back, a female Orange-flanked Bush-robin fed on the path in front of us.
The hot soup waiting for us back at the Warden's house was one of the best meals I have had ever had, I was frozen to the core by then.
As only I was birding, just one "bird of the day" today: Slender-billed Scimitar-babbler.
20th of May:
My parents had had enough of the roads and headed for Darjeeling, whilst Ha and I left for Pelling. Passing a waterfall, both Ha and I saw a bird that needed checking out. Good thing, too, because the bird turned out to be the only Forktail of our trip, a Slaty-backed Forktail. The road to Pelling is currently under construction, making the drive an interesting experience indeed.
Pelling is really not much to write home about; a popular destination for Indian tourists, it is dirty and unkempt, with heaps of guesthouses. I have to repeat that, after Bhutan, Sikkim was a bit of a disappointment. We stayed at the Phamrong hotel; their rooms were nothing special, but the food was outstanding.
After a great lunch, we walked up to a nearby Pagoda, but it was very quiet birding-wise. The only new birds for the trip were a lonely Yellow-breasted (Himalayan) Greenfinch, and a group of four Eurasian Treecreepers.
We had another excellent meal at the Phamrong Hotel, washed down with a couple of very cold Kingfisher Beers.
Not much choice today, but Ha and I both chose the Yellow-breasted Greenfinch as "bird of the day".
21st of May:
An early start found us at Rabdentse, the ancient capital of Sikkim. Not really much to see, but we did pick up a few good birds. Barred Cuckoo-doves were very common, as were Rufous Sibias. After a brief leech-scare, with Ha obviously seeing them first again, we stuck to the paved path. A White-bellied Redstart gave excellent views, as did a mixed flock of White-naped Yuhinas and Nepal Fulvettas. After hearing them throughout the trip, we finally got a great view of a Large Hawk-cuckoo. Blue-winged Minlas were all over the place, as were Scaly Laughingthrushes. Even the sole Red-billed Leiothrix was very accommodating, letting us see it from all sides.
And it was time to head to Darjeeling, fortunately on a different road from yesterday. We met our parents at the New Elgin Hotel. The hotel is actually far from new, it is an old Colonial building from the beginning of the last century. The ground floor was very nice, however the food did not quite match the standards of the rest of the hotel.
In the afternoon, we visited the zoo, primarily for the Red Pandas, which we failed to see in the wild. A Red-billed Leiothrix gave the best views ever, we also added Chestnut-capped Babbler to our trip list.
Ha had not seen the Leiothrix clearly before, so she chose that as "bird of the day"; I went for the Nepal Fulvetta.
22nd of May:
The last day of birding dawned, at least for me. Ha was quite tired by now, and opted to stay in bed. Sudesh and I headed for Tiger Hill, about 15 km from Darjeeling. This is a very popular place for local tourists to see the sunrise. There was actually no sunrise that morning, the weather was not to good, but that did not stop gazillions of people from heading up there anyway. Luckily, they were all heading back by the time we got there, but we still spent a good 30 minutes in a traffic jam.
By the time we did make it to Tiger Hill, it was very quiet, and we straight away spotted to birds in the Bamboo that had been on my wish list: Brown and Black-throated Parrotbill. It was nice to see them almost next to each other, emphasizing the difference in size between the two.
Near the entrance, a pair of White-tailed Nuthatches were nesting. Whilst I tried to take photos, a Spotted Laughingthrush flew into a tree nearby. Ha and Norbu had seen it on our second day in Bhutan but I had missed it, annoying me no end. But this bird made up for it, instead of just a fleeting glimpse, we were able to observe it for a good couple of minutes. We finished off our morning with Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher and Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrushes.
And that was it. We spent the afternoon shopping for some of the excellent tea that Darjeeling is justly famous for, and then headed back to Vietnam via Delhi and Bangkok.
What a trip it was, with 223 species seen and a mind-blowing 83 "lifers". As stated above, the trip was not all about birding, hard-core birders would certainly have seen more. I think we got the best of all worlds: incredible culture, scenery, and birds.
List of species seen:
* denotes lifer