Enchanting Bhutan

A journey in search of birds and places teeming with wildlife in the biodiversity hotspot of Bhutan.

Published : Jul 24, 2021 06:00 IST

The yellow-footed green pigeon enjoying the warmth of the morning sun on a treetop to beat the cold weather.

The yellow-footed green pigeon enjoying the warmth of the morning sun on a treetop to beat the cold weather.

FLYING like a giant metallic bird, the Drukair—Royal Bhutan Airlines—flight deftly negotiated the ring of mountains to land at a small airfield at Paro in Bhutan with remarkable surroundings. The tiny aerodrome nestled among the mighty Himalaya is one of the most hazardous in the world. The airfield is 7,300 feet (2,225 metres) above sea level and surrounded by sharp peaks of up to 18,000 ft (5,486 m). So challenging is the landing that only about two dozen pilots in the world are said to be qualified to navigate onto the tarmac. The manual by-daylight-only approach through a winding valley and onto a runway that is just about 7,500 feet (2,286 m) long is complicated. But for the passengers, the views are breathtakingly beautiful from the aircraft, and hence the window seats attract a premium.

The small runway is snug as a bug in a rug in the middle of a pristine forest-clad valley. Once a football field, it was converted into a small international airport in 1968 by the Indian Army. From a helicopter pad to begin with, it was upgraded in stages to accommodate bigger aircraft. I stepped out of the aircraft to a whiff of crisp, fresh air, balmy sunshine, the azure sky and mountain views, all very invigorating. Even before I arrived in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon, I had got awesome views of the Himalaya with sparkling snow-covered peaks.

My mission was to take cognisance of the flora and fauna in the landlocked Himalayan country with vast swathes of forest land. The tour director, Mincha Wangdi, a qualified environmentalist, had been intimated about my specific needs, and he designed the itinerary to include the cultural aspects of nature too.

Also read: Searching for the elusive western tragopan

We went on a whirlwind tour of Bhutan for seven days searching for elusive birds and animals while also taking in the iconic sights and sounds of Paro, Chele-La, Thimphu, Pele-La, Dochula and Punakha.

Highest wildlife density

Bhutan is among the top 10 countries with the highest wildlife density on earth. It also has the highest acreage of land under Protected Areas and the highest percentage of forest cover in any Asian nation. Bhutan has 23 internationally acknowledged Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs), eight ecoregions, and a number of Important Plant Areas and wetlands.

Home to many floristic zones and a wide array of wildlife, Bhutan is regarded as one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. Biodiversity is measured at different levels, including biological set-up, genes, species, ecosystems and their interaction. Bhutan’s Constitution enshrines the idea that at least 60 per cent of the land must remain forested for all future generations; this currently stands at over 72 per cent. It is the world’s only carbon-negative country and its forests absorb more carbon dioxide per year than the pollutants emitted.

Delightful sightings

Four kilometres from the airport, we stopped at the Paro-Chu river to watch brown dipper birds; as the name connotes, they dunked into the fast-flowing water for food. Dippers are small chunky birds, constantly on the move, with characteristic bobbing when perched on boulders abutting the running waters. We saw them all along the flowing river during our seven-day trip in Bhutan. Like a harbinger of good tidings, the dippers constantly put up a show and regaled us with their dip-feeding and melodious calls.

After the delightful dippers on day one, we spotted a rarity, the ibisbill, at another junction of Paro-Chu. The ibisbill, sporting the bill of the common ibis bird, looks like a combination of two birds. It was tricky to locate the bird hidden among the shingles in the river, well camouflaged and resembling a pebble. The ibisbill is related to waders but is adequately distinctive to merit its own family categorisation called Ibidorhynchidae. At sunset, the ibisbill started to stir after a midday breather, searching for food in the mineral-rich waters, and I was trigger-happy, taking pictures before daylight dimmed.

The next morning at 4:30 we ventured into the darkness in the biting cold weather in pursuit of the more evasive birds. The drive uphill to Chele-La Pass on the Bondey-Haa Highway was pretty steep, with numerous twists and turns. Our morning sojourn was specifically to look for pheasants which are stocky yet spectacular ground birds. From an altitude of 7,200 feet at Paro a two-hour drive through winding roads for a distance of 50 km took us to Bhutan’s highest motorable road on the Chele-La Pass at nearly 14,000 feet. At the crack of dawn, warm sunshine lit up the valley and we saw blood pheasants saunter on the roadside.

A little later, driving another 5 km on winding roads we espied monal pheasants that swiftly disappeared into the jungle. However, I was left with a bitter-sweet feeling as the beautiful satyr tragopan did not show up.At the top of the Chele-La Pass, we stopped for a picnic breakfast under the azure sky, had refreshments and washed it down with piping hot coffee. A mob of red-billed choughs flew in to check us out and disappeared behind the high hills. The short break energised me to continue the journey eastwards towards the Haa valley. Before we could reach the rim of the valley, black eagles appeared in the sky and wheeled in circles giving us a sight of their flight patterns.

Another raptor plonked itself on a tower and troubled us with its identity for a while. After much scrutiny we deciphered it as the white-eyed buzzard whose ruffled feathers made it look larger than usual. Nearby a flutter of wings indicated white-winged grosbeaks on treetops; the birds dispersed at the grunts of feral horses grazing on the hillside. As we reached the rim of the Haa valley a flock of snow pigeons made their presence with loud wingbeats.

Also read: In quest of rare birds

Bhutan is packed with mountainous landscapes that are interconnected with several passes. Many of the valleys are well known for trekking. Between April and June, the weather is pleasant and one can see blooming rhododendrons sprawled across the vibrant landscape of the valleys. It is a perfect time for picnicking and camping with friends and family. Winter, from October to March, offers spectacular views of the snow-capped towering mountains.

I had planned for October to encounter nature at its maximum, and fortunately saw a fleeting glimpse of the bulky black bear. We returned to Paro for lunch and proceeded to the National Museum situated on a high point that offered fabulous views of the Paro valley. At a distance ravens rejoiced in mid-air pranks.

On the third day an early photo-hunting session led us to another uncommon bird, the black-tailed crake. At the lush swamp located close to our hotel, a single crake peeped in and out briefly but hid itself in the marshes skirted by reed beds. The crake, because of its skulking habits, is infrequently recorded in its range. The global population of the crake has not been officially estimated as disappearing wetlands are a threat to its habitat.

The riverside marsh also had noisy river lapwings, white-capped redstarts, pied kingfishers and dippers enjoying the gentle morning sun. Stray specimens of the sandpiper also drifted on to the riverbank picking up morsels of food. Further afield a flock of snow pigeons took off towards the iconic Tiger Hill as if in salutation.

Habitat disturbance

The next day, we left Paro and travelled towards Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, 70 km away, located in a valley with impressive modern and traditional buildings jostling for space. Later, getting away from the capital environs, we were on the lookout for the mysterious white-bellied heron, a ‘critically endangered’ species that occurs alongside rivers. Driving along the Pho-Chu river for many kilometres we finally came to the whereabouts of the rare bird. After four hours of a watch-and-wait situation, at the bifurcation of the river, we sighted the white-bellied heron hunting for fish. We were ecstatic and got out of our minivan eagerly to inspect the bird, but the commotion alerted it and the bird took off into the dense vegetation.

The 19th white-bellied heron annual count was conducted for five days in March 2021 using a hi-tech digital data collection platform. The survey established 22 herons, five fewer than the previous year’s count, making its status more precarious. “Habitat disturbances and degradation are seen as the main causes for its population decline,” says Wangdi.

Also read: In search of the endangered snow leopard

On the morning of the fifth day we went again in search of the white-bellied heron along the Pho-Chu, but five hours of exploration did not yield any result. En route the countryside a group of buntings, sparrows and other passerine birds showed up playing hide-and-seek among the reeds. A flock of finches and drongos on the wing were joined by babblers, doves, sunbirds and black bulbuls with their melodious tweets.

The legend about the takin

Our morning disappointment turned into delight as we explored the Royal Botanical Park at Lampelri which forms a biological corridor over 120 sq. km between two national parks.

Here we sighted the takin, the national animal of Bhutan. It is a strange combination of a goat and an antelope. Local mythology ascribes its origin to a prominent lama, known as Divine Madman, who visited Bhutan in the 15th century. When devotees urged the monk to perform a miracle, he demanded that he be served a whole cow and a goat for lunch first.

It is widely believed that after devouring these with relish he took the goat’s head and stuck it onto the bones of the cow. Then, to everyone’s astonishment, with a snap of his fingers he commanded the strange beast to come alive. Many of these animals can be seen grazing on the mountainsides of Bhutan.

The takin continues to befuddle taxonomists. The famous biologist George Schaller called it a “bee-stung moose”. The takin population is on the decline and conservation strategies are needed for its survival.

The day ended with us exploring a few trekking trails in the park, where we came across an assemblage of parrotbills, hornbills, woodpeckers, honeyguides, finches, red-billed leiothrix, wrens, fire-tailed myzornis, and so on. The park had indeed kept up its reputation as a preferred bird observation junction.

Many shades of red

A range of rhododendrons bloomed in many shades of red and orange in the sprawling park. As we were about to leave, we came across what was the piece de resistance of the day, a red panda sauntering playfully on treetops. Unfortunately its numbers are dwindling across the globe because of the loss of habitat.

Also read: Birds of the eastern Himalaya

The sixth day was the most fruitful for the sheer number of birds we saw alongside the snow-covered mountains at Dochula Pass. Wangdi had wisely chosen a hotel situated on an elevation that offered fantastic views of the snowy mountains changing colour from a range of pink to orange between sunrise and sunset.

At Dochula we saw the white-throated laughing thrush, the scarlet finch, the oriole, the minivet, the Bhutan laughing thrush, the niltava, the spotted laughing thrush, the nutcracker, the treecreeper and a whole lot of winged wonders. By the end of the seventh day, we had covered about 800 km searching for wildlife, flora and boisterous birds in Bhutan.

On the penultimate day, over the last supper in Bhutan, celebrating the successful trip, I made a list of 70 birds in seven days, a minuscule number considering the 770 species recorded in Bhutan. Each year Bhutan’s bird list grows longer because of its biodiversity and the relatively small systematic birding that has been done in the kingdom.

That night, I pondered over Bhutan, where the gross national happiness (GNH) quotient gets precedence over the gross domestic product (GDP). To obtain that GNH pleasure in me as a twitcher and trigger-happy lensman, I hope to take up a more extensive cross-country romance with Bhutan in the near future and also meet the revered and rare black-necked cranes.

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