Trip Report: Western Bhutan, March 13-18, 2000

Tom and Margot Southerland, 282 Western Way, Princeton, NJ 08540, USA;


The Kingdom of Bhutan, a predominately Buddhist country in the Himalayas situated between India and China (Tibet), is the size of the combined US states of Vermont and New Hampshire. The Bhutanese have long called their country "Druk Yul" (translated as "Land of the Thunder Dragon"). To us and members of our group, our visit was a delightful step back in time to a place where there are no TV channels (but yes to video rentals), few telephones, no cell phones, no stoplights and the people are helpful, friendly and wave back to visitors. And, the majority of Bhutanese still wear their handsome native dress, the gho for men and the kira for women. The other dress commonly seen is the maroon robe worn by Buddhist monks ranging in age from young boys to old men.

Bhutan has often been compared with Switzerland because it's roughly the same size, has wonderful mountain scenery, is steeped in tradition and is quaint. They even have alpine horns (parallel adaptation?). But, instead of Swiss church spires and mountain chalets, Bhutan has magnificent, massive buildings called dzongs. Located above a river and often at the entrance to a valley, these citadels were strategically placed. Not only do they house a monastery, but serve as the administrative capital of the area. They are no longer used as a fortress to protect a region. Also, dome-like shrines with a vertical spike on top are often conspicuous high on hillsides. Called Chorten (in India stupa), they contain religious relics and are places to make offerings.

Blessed with natural resources and a small human population density, Bhutan fortunately has goals of economic self-sufficiency combined with protecting its environment including its great forests. Most of the population is engaged in agriculture, and a number of steep hillsides are terraced. The country for a long time was closed to foreigners except for those invited by the royal families. Then in the 1960s a few visas were given to various trekkers and a few scientists, and in 1974 the number of visas increased to 200. Years later the annual number of visas increased to 2,000 visas. Now it's up to 6,000.

There's only one airport in Bhutan and it's located in western Bhutan at Paro. The terminal is new and attractive, both inside and out, and is decorated in the Bhutanese style. There are two Druk Airline planes, and both are modern British BAe 146-100 four-engine jets that carry 72 passengers (including 10 in first class). Druk offers flights to New Delhi, Calcutta, Kathmandu and Bangkok. The planes flying between Bhutan and Kathmandu in nearby Nepal parallel the Himalayas and offer dramatic views of various peaks including Mount Everest.


We only saw two Yaks near a forested pass, and they were probably semi-domesticated. We did see two Yellow-throated Martens. We also saw several Common Langurs in trees covered with frost and light snow and wished we had our camera. Our views of Takins, Bhutan's national animal, were at the zoo just outside Thimpu, the country's capital. There, we saw about 5 or 6 in an enclosed wooded area of several acres. An altitudinal migrant, the large Takin is part-antelope and part-moose and classified as the only member of its family. There are, of course, many mammals from Snow and Cloud Leopards up high to Elephant, One-horned Rhino and Tiger at lower elevations. We were twice in the habitat for the Red Panda, but because it is nocturnal, tough to see in the daytime unless one can devote ample time for searching. The Golden Langur, endemic to Bhutan, is another rare and difficult mammal to spot.


In western Bhutan there is only one paved road, and because there are so many curves in this hilly and mountainous area, considerable time is spent reaching a specific birding area. The bird list for Bhutan is over 650 species. Thus, it is of no surprise that so many bird tour operators spend almost three weeks in Bhutan to include the subtropical broad-leaved forests of lower elevations, a drive of over six hours from our area. Our week-long trip just covered Western Bhutan.

While the rest of our group visited cultural sites and attended a festival, three of us looked for birds with our local guide, Sherub, an outstanding young Bhutanese birder who is the designate ornithologist in the Ministry of Agriculture. And, for several days, Mohit Aggarwal, a birder and Director of Asian Adventurers based in New Delhi, joined us.

Our number one target bird was the Ibisbill. Just prior to our departure for India, Nepal and Bhutan, we read in Wild Bird magazine their interview with the late Arnold Small, a US birder, a photographer of note, and an old friend. In the interview Arnold revealed that the Ibisbill in Bhutan was one of the two toughest birds to find in all his world travels. This news was discouraging because in January 1998 in India's Corbett National Park we missed one by a week. On the other hand, during our March 1999 trip to Himachal Pradesh we learned that an Ibisbill had been seen there several months previously. That miss was easier to accept.

We need not have worried for we saw two Ibisbills within three minutes of walking out of the airport's main entrance and even before we met Sherub or had time to place our luggage in the vehicle. These sightings were initiated when a member of our group going on a cultural tour of western Bhutan walked some 25 yards to a berm in front of the terminal overlooking a wide, rocky stream and called out, "What am I hearing?" (Later we determined it was a River Lapwing.) The two of us walked out to the berm and Margot, reaching the top of the berm first, shouted, "There's an Ibisbill!" followed by "And there's another one!" Both fed nearby. During our stay, we saw a total of 15 including 3 chicks, and we were not trying to run up any kind of a count. At one river area where we were looking at various water birds, we saw 2 Ibisbills on one side and 3 on the other. In February of this year, a census counted 83 Ibisbills. A few remain throughout the year but most arrive in late October and depart by early to mid-April.

We dipped on seeing the endangered Black-necked Cranes because of a mud and rockslide at the high pass en route to their wintering grounds at Phobjikha in a valley of the Black Mountains. The rains were unusual at this time of the year. The next day we were able to cross the slide area but it then started to snow. This meant there was no chance that the snow and ice from the previous day would melt, and so we turned back. It was simply too dangerous to drive along the narrow, steep road and besides, another rockslide was a probability.

We may have missed the cranes, but a nice consolation was having the time to bird along the forested areas on the downward and drier side of the pass. We picked up several feeding parties of mixed species that gave us 9 new birds. We never would have seen them had we made it down to the valley of the cranes. Also, seeing a group of about 10 Black-throated Parrotbills gave us a new family.

Some other trip highlights were seeing 3 Wallcreepers (not new), 7 Pallas's (Great Black-headed) Gulls in breeding plumage all together (sitting and flying) and the threatened Hoary-throated Barwing feeding at eye level. We also saw 2 birds listed as Bhutan vagrants: Chestnut Thrush (male at two different locations) and White-backed (Kessler's) Thrush (12 including a few females and another male three days later at a different location).

Bird Books

There are two books you can use and both are by the three authors: Carol Inskipp, Tim Inskipp and Richard Grimmett. Each has its own advantages. The first is The Birds of India (field guide version) and the second is The Birds of Bhutan. The first has range maps but is slightly heavier, and thicker, since it includes all the birds of the Indian Sub-continent. The second only includes Bhutan birds so it is easier to carry but has no range maps. It does, however, give range information. The Birds of Bhutan also lists a number of vagrants in the Appendix, but these birds do not appear on any of the plates, just written descriptions. We saw two of those vagrants (see above) but had to use Birds of India to compare with the sightings. (Sherub maintains contact with Carol Inskipp and keeps her informed whenever he sees vagrants or other noteworthy sightings.)

Bird Sightings (March 13-18, 2000)

Note: F is for first time sightings

  Great Crested Grebe (2)                   Podiceps cristatus
  Great Cormorant                           Phalacrocorax carbo
  Bar-headed Goose (8 + 9)                  Anser indicus
  Ruddy Shelduck (14 + 5 + 15)              Tadorna ferruginea
  Common Shelduck (16)                      Tadorna tadorna
  Eurasian Wigeon                           Anas penelope
  Green-winged Teal                         Anas crecca
  Spot-billed Duck                          Anas poecilorhyncha
  Northern Pintail                          Anas acuta
  Common Merganser                          Mergus merganser
  Gray Heron                                Ardea cinerea
  Pallas' Fish-Eagle (1 + 1)                Haliaeetus leucoryphus
  Shikra                                    Accipiter badius
  Northern Goshawk (1 sitting)              Accipiter gentilis
  Common Buzzard                            Buteo buteo
  Black Eagle (1 + 1)                       Ictinaetus malayensis
  Mountain Hawk-Eagle (1 soaring)           Spizaetus nipalensis
  Hill Partridge (one heard only)           Arborophila torqueola
  Eurasian Kestrel                          Falco tinnunculus
  Green Sandpiper                           Tringa ochropus
  Common Sandpiper                          Actitis hypoleucos
F Ibisbill (15 inc. 3 chicks)               Ibidorhyncha struthersii
  Little Ringed Plover (1)                  Charadrius dubius
  Mongolian Plover (1)                      Charadrius mongolus
  Northern Lapwing                          Vanellus vanellus
  River Lapwing                             Vanellus duvaucelii
  Red-wattled Lapwing                       Vanellus indicus
F Great Black-headed Gull (7 together)      Larus ichthyaetus
  Rock Dove                                 Columba livia
  Oriental Turtle-Dove                      Streptopelia orientalis
  Common Kingfisher                         Alcedo atthis
  Crested Kingfisher (1 sitting)            Megaceryle lugubris
  Indian Roller                             Coracias benghalensis
  White-throated Fantail (pair)             Rhipidura albicollis
  Ashy Drongo                               Dicrurus leucophaeus
  Gold-billed Magpie (8)                    Urocissa flavirostris
  Eurasian Nutcracker (1 + 1)               Nucifraga caryocatactes
  Red-billed Chough (many)                  Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax
  Large-billed Crow                         Corvus macrorhynchos
F Long-tailed Minivet (1 + 1 males)         Pericrocotus ethologus
  Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike (several)    Hemipus picatus
F Gray-backed Shrike (at least 2)           Lanius tephronotus
  Brown Dipper (4)                          Cinclus pallasii
F Blue Rock-Thrush (male on rock)           Monticola solitarius
  Blue Whistling-Thrush (a number)          Myiophonus caeruleus
F Plain-backed Thrush (2 + 1)               Zoothera mollissima
  White-collared Blackbird (several)        Turdus albocinctus
  Eurasian Blackbird (at least 6)           Turdus merula
F Chestnut Thrush (2 males,Gouldi race)     Turdus rubrocanus
F White-backed Thrush (12 + 1)              Turdus kessleri
  Dark-throated Thrush (4,Red-thr. race)    Turdus ruficollis
  Common Myna                               Acridotheres tristis
  Orange-flanked Bush-Robin (male)          Tarsiger cyanurus
  Oriental Magpie-Robin (male)              Copsychus saularis
F Hodgson's Redstart (male, 4 females)      Phoenicurus hodgsoni
F White-throated Redstart (2 males,1 fem.)  Phoenicurus schisticeps
F Blue-fronted Redstart (2 males)           Phoenicurus frontalis
  White-capped Redstart (2 males)           Chaimarrornis leucocephalus
  Plumbeous Redstart (male and female)      Rhyacornis fuliginosus
  Slaty-backed Forktail (1, nice view)      Enicurus schistaceus
  Common Stonechat (male)                   Saxicola torquata
F White-tailed Nuthatch (3)                 Sitta himalayensis
  Wallcreeper (3)                           Tichodroma muraria
F Rusty-flanked Treecreeper (1 close)       Certhia nipalensis
F Black-browed Tit (2 or 3)                 Aegithalos iouschistos
  Red-vented Bulbul                         Pycnonotus cafer
F Ashy-throated Warbler (1 or 2)            Phylloscopus maculipennis
F Lemon-rumped Warbler (1 or 2)             Phylloscopus proregulus
F Broad-billed Warbler (1 or 2)             Tickellia hodgsoni
  White-throated Laughingthrush (19)        Garrulax albogularis
  Striated Laughingthrush (14)              Garrulax striatus
F Black-faced Laughingthrush (abt. 14)      Garrulax affinis
F Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush (2)       Garrulax erythrocephalus
F Rufous-capped Babbler (abt. 4)            Stachyris ruficeps
F Hoary-throated Barwing (1 v. close)       Actinodura nipalensis
  Chestnut-tailed Minla (3+)                Minla strigula
F Rufous-winged Fulvetta (at least 2)       Alcippe castaneceps
  White-browed Fulvetta (2)                 Alcippe vinipectus
  Rufous Sibia (2 + 2)                      Heterophasia capistrata
F Stripe-throated Yuhina  (1)               Yuhina gularis
F Black-throated Parrotbill (abt. 10)       Paradoxornis nipalensis
  Green-backed Tit (several)                Parus monticolus
F Yellow-browed Tit (2 or 3 close)          Baeolophus modestus
F Russet Sparrow  (many)                    Passer rutilans
  Eurasian Tree Sparrow (several)           Passer montanus
  Nutmeg Mannikin (14)                      Lonchura punctulata
  White Wagtail                             Motacilla alba
  White-browed Wagtail                      Motacilla madaraspatensis
  Olive-backed Pipit (1 at eye level)       Anthus hodgsoni
F Rosy Pipit (several)                      Anthus roseatus
F Rufous-breasted Accentor (6)              Prunella strophiata
  Green-tailed Sunbird (several males)      Aethopyga nipalensis
F Plain Mountain-Finch (abt.20 together)    Leucosticte nemoricola
F Dark-breasted Rosefinch (male w. 10 fem.) Carpodacus nipalensis
F Collared Grosbeak (male)                  Mycerobas affinis

95 species

Return to trip reports.

This page served with permission of the author by Urs Geiser;; May 18, 2000