Bhutan: Comprehensive Eastern Himalayas
Nestled between the plains of India and the Tibetan plateau, the Kingdom of Bhutan occupies a rampart of spectacular Himalayan terrain. Isolated for centuries, Bhutan is home to one of the world’s least disturbed cultures as well as the most intact natural habitat in the entire Himalayan range, boasting an enticing array of enigmatic Eastern Himalayan specialities.
As a result of their geographic location, influenced by both the temperate Palaearctic and tropical Indo-Malayan zones, and a steep elevational gradient resulting in a rich mosaic of habitats, the Eastern Himalayas are the most bird-rich part of the Himalayan chain. In Bhutan, as a result of the limited development, low population density, and a traditional respect for nature inherent in Buddhist culture, birds are relatively undisturbed and approachable, offering a window into what the Himalayas must once have been throughout their range.
Our comprehensive birding tour takes us on a journey across this fascinating country. We begin at the border town of Gelephu after crossing the international border from India. On the Bhutan side of the border foothill forests remain relatively intact, and we will enjoy a good introduction to Bhutan’s lowland species such as Wreathed Hornbill, Great Slaty Woodpecker and Pied Falconet, alongside the endemic Golden Langur. Moving north we spend time in the dense and productive foothill forests of Tingtibe, targeting a host of low elevation species including Red-headed Trogon, Barred Cuckoo-dove and Long-tailed Broadbill. From here we head north and east along Bhutan’s Lateral Road, crossing a series of high mountain passes ending with Thrumshing La, looking for Spotted Nutcracker, Wallcreeper and Himalayan Monal. We drive east along the ornithologically celebrated Lingmethang Road as far as the Shonkhar Chu Valley. This section of the Lateral Road offers incredible access to pristine forest over 3150m of altitude, and from bases at two elevations we will thoroughly explore the habitats and species on offer. Key among these are some of the most enticing birds to inhabit the Eastern Himalayas, stunners such as Ward’s Trogon, Gould’s Shortwing, Himalayan Cutia, Satyr Tragopan, and an incredible selection of scimitar-babblers, wren-babblers, thrushes, flycatchers, warblers and tits. Retracing our route back west, we make our way via Pele La to the Phobjikha Valley, where cultivation and scrub hosts Yellow-billed Blue Magpie, Chestnut-bellied Rock-thrush and Striated Prinia. Further west, in dense forests spanning a range of elevations in the scenic Tashitang Valley we will search for Spotted Elachura, all three species of tesia, Golden Bush-robin and Small Niltava while our next destination the Pho Chu Valley and Jigme Dorji National Park is home to the critically endangered White-bellied Heron, Black-tailed Crake and Ibisbill. The final days of the tour take us to Paro, with a further chance of high-altitude specialities including Blood Pheasant and Himalayan Griffon at Bhutan’s highest pass, Chele La.
This is the epitome of Himalayan birding; taking us through sub-montane forest adjoining the Brahmaputra floodplain into magnificent moss-draped mid-altitude forests that blanket the hillslopes, up into alpine meadows and over high mountain passes hung with prayer flags, this tour offers a rich diversity of regional specialities across the altitudinal gradient, against a backdrop of the high Himalayas punctuated by colourful Buddhist stupas and imposing royal palaces.
18 April - 2 May 2020
(also available as a custom tour)
Ground price: £ 3805
Single room supplement: £ 290
Deposit: £ 500
The price includes: Accommodation, all meals, bottled drinking water, services of ground crew for camping/meals, all ground transport, all birding/wildlife activities as described, Bhutan visa fees, guiding, pre-tour information, species checklists.
The price excludes: Flights, Indian visa fees, travel insurance, drinks other than water, tips and any expenses of a personal nature.
Maximum group size: 8
Accommodation: Fully serviced tented camp in Tingtibe, comfortable rooms with private facilities elsewhere.
Tour grading: Moderate. Most birding will be on foot along quiet, paved roads; the tour is intensive in terms of time spent in the field. Note we bird to 3890m where altitude makes walking more strenuous.
Key species: Himalayan Monal, Satyr Tragopan, Blood Pheasant, Himalayan Cutia, Beautiful Nuthatch, Ward's and Red-headed Trogons, Fire-tailed Myzornis, Gould's and White-browed Shortwings, Brown Parrotbill, Spotted Nutcracker, Yellow-rumped Honeyguide, Wallcreeper, Ibisbill, White-bellied Heron, Black-tailed Crake, Himalayan Griffon, Golden Langur.
Day 1: Guwahati to Gelephu
Arrivals into India’s Guwahati airport this morning, driving across the border into central Bhutan to Gelephu for the night. Along the drive we will encounter a host of the subcontinent’s more widespread birds, looking in particular for range-restricted Greater Adjutant.
Day 2-4: Tingtibe
The morning at Gelephu will provide a good introduction to Bhutan’s lowland birds, such as Wreathed Hornbill, Great Slaty Woodpecker, Violet Cuckoo, Spotted and Black-backed Forktails and Pied Falconet in relatively intact lowland forests. Moving on, we spend two nights camping at Tingtibe and Zhemgang, birding along a quiet and little-visited road that runs through mid-altitude broadleaved forests of the foothills, protected as Black Mountain and Royal Manas National Parks and hosting species such as Red-headed Trogon, Barred Cuckoo-dove, Long-tailed Broadbill, White-browed Piculet, Red-billed Leiothrix, Streak-breasted Scimitar-babbler and Blyth’s Kingfisher, together with the endemic Golden Langur. Drive on to Trongsa in the afternoon of day 4 for an overnight stay.
Day 5: Bumthang
Today takes us north onto the Lateral Road, the extraordinary feat of engineering that bisects Bhutan, travelling east via Trongsa to Bumthang for the night. This will take us through some wonderful rhododendron forests at 3425m Yutong La, where we will encounter skulking high-altitude species such as Spotted and Black-faced Laughingthrushes, Slender-billed Scimitar-babbler, Scaly-breasted Wren-babbler, White-browed Shortwing and Fire-tailed Myzornis.
Day 6-9: Thrumsing La to Sengor, Namling and Yongkala along the Lingmethang Road
On day 6 we descend into the Ura Valley, looking for Plain Mountain-finch and Russet Sparrow, before ascending to 3780m and into the towering firs of Thrumsing La, prime habitat for Himalayan Monal, together with Spotted Nutcracker, Wallcreeper and Altai Accentor. The pass marks the start of the ornithologically celebrated Lingmethang Road, the section of the Lateral Road between here and the Shonkhar Chu Valley, widely regarded as one of the finest birding sites in Asia. Passing through pristine forest spanning over 3150m of altitude, this road offers incredible access to pristine forests across the altitudinal range, and with four nights divided between Sengor and Yongkala, we can expect an incredible diversity of species in high elevation coniferous forests and subtropical broadleaved woodland at lower levels. These include Ward’s Trogon, Gould’s and Lesser Shortwings, Bar-winged Wren-babbler, Beautiful Nuthatch, Yellow-rumped Honeyguide, Himalayan Cutia, Rufous-necked Hornbill, the star-studded Satyr Tragopan, Snow Pigeon, more secretive residents such as Sikkim Wedge-billed Babbler and Coral-billed Scimitar-babbler, and an incredible selection of flycatchers, warblers and tits.
Day 10: Trongsa
Today we retrace our journey, heading back west to Trongsa, looking and listening for any species we may so far have missed.
Day 11: Pele La and the Phobjikha Valley
This morning takes us up to 3420m at Pele La, looking for Spotted and Bhutan Laughingthrushes, Long-tailed Thrush, Collared and White-winged Grosbeaks, Black-throated Parrotbill, Bearded Vulture and with luck Red Panda, as we make our way to the Phobjikha Valley for the night. The vast glacial valley’s mosaic of grass, scrub and farms supports Yellow-billed Blue Magpie, Chestnut-bellied Rock-thrush, Green-tailed and Mrs. Gould’s Sunbirds, Black-faced and Grey-hooded Warblers and Striated Prinia.
Day 12: Punakha and the Tashitang Valley via Lawa La
Today we cross Lawa La, where stands of dwarf bamboo hold Great and Brown Parrotbills, heading towards Punakha for the night. We will spend the afternoon birding within the scenic Tashitang Valley, where dense forests spanning a range of elevations host Spotted Elachura, all three species of tesia, Golden Bush-robin, Red-faced Liocichla, Small Niltava, Scarlet Finch and Fire-capped Tit.
Day 13: Pho Chu Valley and Jigme Dorji National Park
Spend the day birding within the Pho Chu Valley in Jigme Dorji National Park and along the Pho Chu River. The valley hosts many of our targets, notably the critically endangered White-bellied Heron, Black-tailed Crake and Ibisbill, plus White-capped Redstart, Brown Dipper and Pallas’s Fish-eagle. By mid-afternoon we will drive west via Dochu La and the capital city, Thimphu, to Paro for a two-night stay.
Day 14: Chele La
The final day of the tour will take us to Chele La, at 3890m the highest pass accessible by road in Bhutan. Ascending above the treeline we can expect to encounter a final selection of high-altitude specialties, in particular Blood Pheasant and Himalayan Griffon.
Day 15: Depart Paro
Departures from Paro international airport today.