Bhutan in Nature -Himalayan Bird Watching
An estimated 770 species of birds inhabit the unspoiled forests. The habitat of the avifauna is the spectacular epiphytic orchids, lichens ferns and mosses. It also harbors some of the most exotic species flora of the Eastern Himalayas with over 50 species of rhododendron along with an amazing variety of medicinal plants and magnolias. The valleys and even the roadside verges are home to colorful herbaceous perennials from mauve primulas to blue poppies and sweet smelling shrubs.
You can expect 400 species if your trip is conducted in spring and about 300 species during other times. Spring is the best time of the year to view flowering plants and the birds after nestling out freely from the cold winter months.
This itinerary begins in Western Bhutan in the valley of Paro where the country’s only airport is located and will take you across the magical Kingdom through Eastern Bhutan and into the Indian State of Assam.
Day 1: Arrival in Bhutan
You will arrive in Paro, Bhutan in the morning on Druk Air, the National Airline of Bhutan. In the afternoon we will explore the beautiful valley of Paro. We will continue birding northwards towards the ruins of the Drukgyel Dzong. The valley of Paro is mainly Blue Pine Forests not so favourable for bird life but the woodlands around the Drukgyel Dzong area will provide us a good indication of the great variety that is to come in the next three weeks. Some of the common species that can be seen in this area include, Black-faced laughing thrush, Chestnut-crowned laughing thrush, Brown Parrot bill, Chestnut-tailed Minla, Common Kestrel, Kalij Pheasant, White-collared Blackbird, Grey-backed Shrike. The more elusive birds that we may just locate are some marshland species such as the Black-tailed Crake and the Solitary Snipe.
Paro is at an elevation of – 7600 feet. The vegetation is temperate with mainly blue pines canopy cover. Overnight in Hotel, Paro.
Day 2: Birding at Chelela pass and evening drive to Thimphu
It takes about 90 minutes to the Chelela pass and hence we should start early. The road winds upwards through blue pine forests which slowly changes to higher elevation conifers such as spruce, hemlock, silver fir, juniper and finally at the summit the vegetation is mainly dwarf rhododendrons and open alpine meadows. The pass located close to 13000 feet is the highest point in Bhutan along a motorable road. If the weather is clear we get fantastic views of the sacred Mt. Jhomolhari and the adjacent Jichu Drake, both of which are well over 20,000 feet. The pass also offers a breathtaking view of the Haa and Paro valleys. The quest for the day will be the incredibly majestic Monal Pheasant. Other birds that we will see are Blood Pheasants, Spotted Laughing thrushes, Himalayan Griffen, White-browed Rose finch and White-throated Redstarts. During our previous trips, we had Collared Grosbeaks respond to our tape and we shall try and see if we can lure them again. After breakfast at the pass we will work our way back down the road and encounter an assortment of Tit species, Red Crossbills, Kalij Pheasants and Yellow-billed Blue Magpies. The vegetation at Chelela pass comprises of pine woodlands and also the only time during the tour where we will be above tree line where the vegetation is mainly alpine scrubs, dwarf rhododendrons (rhododendron cinnabarinum, rho. Lanatum, etc.). Later in the afternoon we will drive to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan located at 7700 feet. The vegetation in Thimphu is mainly blue pine.
Overnight in Hotel, Thimphu.
Day 3: Tango-Cheri valley & Thimphu Sewerage Pond
Like Paro, the Thimphu valley is relatively dry and is surrounded by blue pine forests. To the north of the city, along the religious valley of Tango and Cheri, the vegetation is mainly evergreen Oak forest. A little before the road end we shall stop at a place with rock-bee hives hanging from a cliff to look out for the rare Yellow-rumped honey guide which is one of the globally threatened birds but is relatively easily found in Bhutan. Other birds such as the Crested Kingfisher, Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, Spotted Nutcracker, Oriental Cuckoo, and Large Hawk Cuckoo are quite common. With some luck we may also encounter the beautiful Fire-tailed Myzornis and the Satyr Tragopan. The latter is more likely to be seen later in our trip. In the afternoon we shall have some free time to wander around Thimphu City and engage ourselves in some cultural activities. Later in the evening we will visit the Sewerage Treatment Plant where, the enigmatic Ibis bill is quite common along with other shore birds such as the Green Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, White Wagtails, and Brown Dipper. We may even see the elusive Black-tailed Crake, Ruddy-breasted Crake as well as the Common Snipe.
The Tango and Cheri area is located at 8500 feet and the vegetation is mostly temperate evergreen forests with Oak, bamboo and pines.
Overnight in Hotel, Thimphu.
Day 4: Thimphu – Jigme Dorji National Park
We shall depart early for a full morning of birding at the Dochula pass (10000 feet). Here will look out for high elevation, mixed evergreen and cool-broad leaf forests birds. Only would such colorful birds such as the Fire-tailed Myzornis, Red-tailed Minla, Mrs. Gould’s Sunbird and the Green-tailed sunbird match the stunning blossoms of rhododendrons and magnolias that dot the entire hillside. The wailing call of the Hill Partridge can be heard everywhere and should provide us with one of the challenges of the morning. The temperate broadleaved forest of rhododendrons and magnolias will soon give way to a semi-tropical zone where banana and orange trees and cactuses grow in abundance. Species to look out for are the Eurasian Tree creeper, Golden Bush-Robin, Niltavas, Eurasian Jay, Mountain Hawk Eagle, Plain-backed Thrush, Great Barbet and perhaps even the rare Ward’s Trogon. The sudden appearance of low elevation species such as Red-vented Bulbuls and Common Myna is a reminder of the astonishing diversity of Bhutan within such short distances. Here the vegetation is mainly Chir pine. We shall spend the rest of the day looking for any migrant waterfowl such as Ruddy Shelduck that may still be enjoying the peace of Bhutan. Today will also be our first attempt to look out for the extremely rare White-bellied Heron. Your host in Bhutan is responsible for initiating the survey of this rare bird through the goodwill of one of their generous clients from their International Crane Foundation trip of November 2002. Since then heron nests has been regularly sighted since 1929. Through very rare elsewhere, the heron has been regularly sighted along the Pho Chu (river). During the non breeding season it is quite easy to spot this bird. Since our visit coincides with the start of its nesting time, it may not be as easily sighted. Another rare bird, we may get as a bonus while looking for the White-bellied Heron is the Palla’s Fish Eagle.
Tonight we will camp in the forest of the Jigme Dorji National Park, the largest park in Bhutan. According to the authors of the Birds of Bhutan (Tim & Carol Inskipp), this Park is one of the richest bird habitats per unit area.
The Dochula area lies at an elevation of 10,000 feet. The vegetation is of mixed evergreen and broad-leafed forests (with rhododendrons and magnolias).
The Camp Area lies at an elevation of 4500 feet. The vegetation is warm broad- leaved forests. Overnight in tented camp.
Day 5: Trashithang and Damji Area
The pre-breakfast birding around our camp occurs among vegetation of mainly warm broadleaved forest. We have often sighted a pair of tawny fish owls perched on the tree along the roadside and hence we MUST start early before any vehicles pass by. It is also around this area that a pair of Red-headed Trogons has often been sighted. We shall also continue our quest for the globally threatened White-bellied Heron. It imperative that all group members are always alert as the birds in Bhutan often move in huge mixed flocks and to identify the assortment of warblers is always challenging and yet great fun. Besides, we may also encounter some mammals such as the Takin. It is the national animal of Bhutan. Other animals to see are leopards and wild boars.
Along the newly constructed road towards the village of Damji we may explore, and who knows, what may be in store for us. We may find some species that may never have been reported in the region earlier. Later in the evening we will drive to Punakha. If you wish we may consider a visit to the majestic Punakha Dzong and then drive towards the Wangdue district where we will be spending the night in a hotel.
Overnight in Hotel, Punakha/Wangdue.
Day 6: Wangdue – Pele la
Today we shall drive to Phobjikha with the hope of seeing some black-necked cranes still in residence. Phobjikha located at an elevation of 10,000 feet is a glacial valley and is the biggest wetland in Bhutan. It is the winter home to about 350 black-necked cranes that arrive here in late October and start migrating back to Tibet by early March. Though unlikely, it is still possible that we may see a few cranes still lingering around. The presence of the cranes makes Phobjikha one of the most important wildlife preserves in the Kingdom. By the time of your trip we would have confirmation on the presence of the cranes and if they are not in residence we would spend more time birding along the road. Highlights of today are possible encounter with three species of Parrot bills (Black-throated, Brown and Great), Brown and Red-headed Bullfinch, Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, Black-eared Shrike-babbler, Black-faced warbler, Scarlet Finch, Collared-Grosbeak, Fired-tailed Myzornis, Kalij and Monal pheasants. The Pele-la pass is located at an elevation of 11,300 feet. The vegetation is sub-alpine conifers and bamboo.
Overnight in tented camp below Pele la pass or at hotel in Phobjikha.
Day 7: Phobjikha – Camp en route to Zhemgang
We leave our hotel very early to get to the Pele la. It would take us close to an hour of driving to get there. Monal pheasants as well as Satyr Trogopan are a distinct possibility but the bird of our quest this morning is the Great Parrot bill. After breakfast we drive with occasional birding stops. From the Pele La pass, we start down into central Bhutan. The drive is very scenic and the Bhutanese film “Travelers’ and Magicians” was shot along this road.
Nearly an hour before we reach there on the winding road, we’ll have our first glimpse of the Trongsa Dzong across the breathtaking depths of the Mangde Chhu gorge. Built atop the crest of a narrow ridge, it is, without doubt, the most spectacularly sited dzong in all of Bhutan. It’s perched so far above the river that the clouds frequently float below it. From Trongsa we continue southwards until we reach the bottom of the valley and then again ascend to an elevation of about 6,500 feet where we shall camp at Wangdigang for the night. Almost all birding tours never camp at Wangdigang, which is about 8 miles before the town of Zhemgang. We make an exception because we have always planned a night here before continuing to the regular camp at Tingtibi. Even though there isn’t a proper camping area we do this to give you the pleasure of encounter with the incomparable Beautiful Nuthatch. We’ve had 100% success so far in the quest of this exquisite Nuthatch.
We will be covering a huge altitudinal range during today’s drive and hence covering quite diverse vegetation types. The elevation at Wangdigang is about 6500 and the vegetation is mainly evergreen broad-leaved forests and open habitats.
Overnight in Camp en route to Zhemgang.
Day 8 & Day 9: Birding along Zhemgang-Tingtibi Road
During these two days, we will be birding along the Zhemgang-Tingtibi road. The main quest during these two days will be the very rare and much sought after Beautiful Nuthatch. Other rare sights would include the Fire-tailed Myzornis, Cutia, Sultan Tit, Yellow-cheeked Tit, several species of Laughing thrushes, Fulvettas, Rufous-breasted Bush-Robin, Orange-flanked Bush-Robin, White-browed and Black-headed Shrike Babblers, Black-eared Shrike Babblers, Green Shrike Babbler, Rusty-fronted Barwing, Gray Peacock Pheasant, Red-headed Trogon, several species of Cuckoos, Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Pin-tailed Green Pigeon, White-browed Piculet and the Scarlet Finch. The Rufous-necked Hornbill is also a distinct possibility. During one of our tours of 2004, we in fact had two species of Hornbills, the Rufous-necked and the Great Indian, perched together on the same branch of a tree. Besides birds, the endemic Golden Langur is also very common here. In fact, our campsite is right in the middle of this rare primate’s range. The elevation of the camp is at 2000 feet but we will be exploring mixed broad-leaved evergreen forests at elevations between 8000 and 2000 feet.
Overnight in camp, Tingtibi.
After some early morning birding we shall reluctantly backtrack to Trongsa for the night for a well-deserved hot shower and a night in a proper bed. The elevation at Trongsa is 7000 feet.
Overnight in Hotel, Trongsa.
Day 11: Trongsa – Ura
Above Trongsa the road climbs through many switchbacks and then it passes through a misty forest of Silver Firs and bamboo on the way to Yotong La (11,234 ft). The drive through magnificent rhododendron and magnolia forest is simply breathtaking. White-browed Fulvettas, Grey crested Tits, Coal Tits, gangs of White-throated Laughing thrush are fairly common. The elusive Fulvous Parrot bill is also a distinct possibility. The Gold-naped Finch has also been spotted here. Once we cross the Yotong La pass, the vegetation diversifies to Spruce and Silver Fir forest with plenty of bamboo undergrowth. As we descend further, it then changes to Blue Pine forest and hence the birdlife is not especially diverse. Strangely, Bumthang is the only district in Bhutan where you find the Black-billed Magpie - nothing really exciting about that but something to take note of nonetheless. We shall spend some time exploring the Bumthang town resembling a cowboy town of the Wild West. Later in the afternoon we drive further east to the beautiful alpine valley of Ura. Ura (elevation 10,000 feet) is a large, compact, and since the advent of potato farming - quite wealthy agricultural village with an attractive temple and cobblestoned “streets.” Beautiful Rose finch, White-browed Rose finch, Red-billed Chough, Spotted Nutcracker, Russet Sparrows, Black-billed Magpie and Rufous-breasted Accentor are some of the rather common birds that can be seen foraging in the open fields.
The elevation at Ura is 10,000 feet. The vegetation is of sub-alpine and open habitats.
Overnight in Camp or farmhouse, Ura.
Day 12: Ura – Sengor
We leave early in the morning before the flow of traffic (about 10-20 vehicles passing in the entire day is considered rush hour along this road) begins with the hope of catching some of the most beautiful pheasants of the Himalayas feeding along the road. It is not uncommon to see flocks of up to 30 or more Blood Pheasants by the roadside. If lucky we could also see Monal Pheasant as well as the Satyr Tragopan. Flocks of Snow Pigeon have also been frequently sighted flying across the valley or foraging in the farmlands. Near Gyazamchu, in a small wetland along the crystal clear mountain stream, three Wood snipes were sighted during our previous trips and we shall check out the site again.
The vegetation during this drive is mainly cool broadleaf and fir forest. The beauty of the landscape against the backdrop of brightly colored rhododendrons in full blossom is unmatched. Near the Thrumsengla pass at 12,500 feet is an in-situ rhododendron garden which has over 20 species of rhododendrons, six of which are endemic to Bhutan. Here we shall check out for the gorgeous Fire-tailed Sunbird and other forest birds such as the Rufous-georgetted and Ultramarine Flycatchers, Rufous-bellied Niltava, Red-headed Bullfinch, Collared-Grosbeak, Rusty-flanked and Eurasian Treecreepers, and a several species of Tit species. From the pass it is another hour to the beautiful alpine village of Sengor. We shall camp a little further down from the village which is the prime Satyr Tragopan habitat. Besides the Tragopan, other species reported in this area include the Bar-winged Wren Babbler and the Spotted Laughing thrush.
The elevation at Sengor is 9000 feet
Overnight in tented camp, Sengor.
Days 13, 14, 15: Yongkola to Mongar
The road along this stretch ranging from the pass at 12,000 feet to just less than 3000 feet is considered to be amongst the best birding circuits in Asia. During our three days here we will explore the wonderfully rich, sub-tropical, warm and cool, broad-leaved forests along the lower section of this road (2000 to 8000 feet). The specialties of this area are: Ward’s and Red-headed Trogon, Scimitar Babblers; Parrot bills, Rufous-necked Hornbill, an assortment of Warblers, Fire-tailed Myzornis, Hill Partridges, Satyr Trogopan, Speckled Wood Pigeon, Sultan and Yellow-cheeked Tits, varieties of Bulbuls, 3 species of Tesias (Chestnut-headed, Slaty-bellied and Grey-bellied), Flycatchers and Laughing thrushes.
We will be camping for the first two nights and on the 3rd night we will drive to Mongar (90 minutes) where we will be staying in a Hotel.
Mongar lies at an elevation of 6000 feet.
Overnight in camp (2 nights at Yongkhola), one night in Hotel, Mongar.
Day 16: Mongar – Trashigang-Rongthong
A few miles from the hotel in Mongar will bring us to the Korila pass (2300 meters) where the vegetation is mixed broad-leaved evergreen forests. The expected birds here are Siberian stonechat, Rufus-bellied Niltava, Ward’s Trogon, Gold-naped Finch, Maroon-backed Accentors, etc. We will then proceed towards the town of Trashigang, which used to be the biggest town in Eastern Bhutan until it has recently been overtaken by Mongar. Our drive will take us through the famous Yadi curves, a series of switchbacks passing through the village of Yadi through Chir Pine forest, corn fields and banana groves. Once we have descended to the valley floor the road follows in the opposite direction of the Dangme chu river. At Chazam we turn right over the bridge and climb upwards to the town of Trashigang. We shall spend some time at Trashigang and if you wish we can visit the superbly located Dzong built in 1659. Later in the afternoon we shall drive to Rongthong, where we had once spotted a Spot-bellied Eagle Owl very close to our campsite (7000 feet).
The elevation of the Camp is 7000 feet and is an open habitat.
Overnight in camp, Rongthong.
Day 17: Rongtong– Morong (Camp)
Prior to breakfast we shall scan the rice fields near our camp for the elusive Black-tailed Crake. In addition we may also see some Cuckoos. Our drive today passes through settlements including Bhutan’s premier institute – Sherubtse College. We should get some gorgeous birds such as Scarlet Finches, Black-headed and White-browed Shrike babblers, Emerald Cuckoos and Crested Serpent Eagles. Today’s drive will also take us through some fantastic broad-leaved forests and we will pass our last high point of our tour at about 9,000 feet meters from where we will get great views of ridge after ridge of the Himalayan hills before it descends to the plains. Our camp at Morong is at approximately 5,000 feet.
Day 18: Morong area – Samdrup Jongkhar
Our quest for the day in this moist broad-leaved forest will be the Cochoa. During one of our tours of 2006, a Green Cochoa just popped up on the roadside while we were trying to lure a pair of Blue-winged Laughing thrush out of the thicket. Other specialties include the Long-tailed Broadbill, Gray Peacock Pheasant and the Red-billed Leiothrix. The mystical Blyth’s Trogopan has been reported along this stretch of road and the hunt is on for every birding tour to be the first to sight it. As we drive further down the vegetation is sub-tropical and corresponding species like the Hill Myna, Wreathed Hornbill and long-tailed Sibia should be expected.
Later in the evening we proceed to the town of Samdrup Jongkhar for a night in the hotel.
Overnight in Hotel, Samdrup Jongkhar.
Day 19: Samdrup Jongkhar
Since the town is right at the border with India, we will drive back into Bhutan and explore the sub-tropical forest above Samdrup Jongkhar. We should encounter several species of Cuckoos, Black-naped Monarch, Crimson Sunbird, Asian Fairy-bluebird, Red-collared Dove, Dollarbird, Red-headed Trogon and the Wreathed and Great Hornbill. The globally threatened Blyth’s Kingfisher has also been found in this region.
Overnight in Hotel, Samdrup Jongkhar which is at an elevation of 900 feet. The vegetation is mainly sub-tropical.
Day 20: Samdrup Jongkhar – Guwahati
After some last minute early morning birding in Bhutan, you will bid goodbye to your Bhutanese crew and proceed to Guwahati airport for onward departure to either Delhi or Kolkota.
Anyone who enjoys outdoor life and is physically fit can participate in treks. If you have a heart condition, please check with your doctor to ensure that it is OK to undertake high altitude treks. Allow yourself some days in Bhutan to acclimatize before you undertake any trek. Altitude sickness can be a serious problem at the altitudes in Bhutan. If you feel sick, dizzy or have a worsening headache, stop and drink as much water as possible. If the symptoms persist, return to the base. Guides are trained to look out for altitude sickness and other ailments that can affect trekkers.
Festivals are not pageants or entertainment. They are not held as tourist attractions. They are genuine manifestations of a religious tradition from thousands of years. Obtrusive, disrespectful and discourteous behavior should be refrained from. The dance ground is not a place to eat, drink or smoke, talk or laugh loudly at inappropriate times, flash cameras or intrude on the dance space. Common courtesy should rule one’s actions when photographing the dancers or onlookers.
Do and don’ts
• Refrain from passing negative comment on religion, royal family and chief abbot
• Locals are very sensitive, you don’t want to sound rude
• Always ask for permission if you are photographing a person
• Dress modestly. Singlet and miniskirts are not well accepted norms
• Enter temples and monasteries only if you have permission. Allow your guide to lead you
• Remove your shoes before entering the temple
• Leave your camera at a safe place, if photography is prohibited
• Refrain from using hat and sunglasses inside religious places
• Use your right hand or both hands to give or receive
• Leaving a donation at the temple is on personal discretion. Normally all Bhutanese do
• Use your palm to show rather than finger, when pointing
• Refrain from pointing your feet at anyone; cross your legs or kneel when sitting in religious places
• Pass clockwise at all chortens and mani walls (elongated chortens inscribed with mantras)
• Don’t wash, swim or throw objects into lakes, many of which are considered sacred
What to Pack?
- Sun hat
- Rain deflator
- Woolen cap
- Hiking Boot
- Running Shoe
- casual shoes
- Thermal Pants
- Digital cameras
- Additional Batteries
- Additional memory cards.
- Motion Sickness
- Head Ache
- Antiseptic cream
- Anti-histamine cream
- Vitamin C
- Food Positioning
- Insect repellent
- Small First Aid Kit
- Contact lenses and solution
- Your prescribed drug, if any.
- US Dollar or Euro – Various domination
- 4-6 pieces of passport size photographs
- Mini torch lights
- Back pack
- Sun Block
- Spare glasses
- Washing kit
- Shaving kit
- Small sewing kit
- Safety pins
- lip salve
Children are welcomed; however, we do not recommend adventure activities such as trek and other adventure activities for children below ten years of age. Additionally, please also be reminded that no facilities or very limited facilities may be available for children.
Book for more than 1 people, contact us directly
Upon arrival to Paro international airport, a car, driver and guide will await to meet you and have you escorted to the hotel. Your itinerary is flexible and pick-time for daily tours will depend on what you have communicated to the guide. Most of the time pick up location will be your hotel unless it a trekking tour. In case of tight itinerary, your guide will have the time recommended to you.