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Bicycle Birdathon 2011

The day began badly.  I’d set the alarm for 2:30 a.m., hoping to set off on the bikes by 3:00.  At 2:15 the phone rang—it was Eva Durance, one of my team members, calling in sick with a cold and fever.  As I listened to her apologies, I heard another unwelcome sound—the dull roar of pouring rain.  It had been raining when I went to bed, but I had hoped it would have let up by now.  I crawled back into bed for a little more rest.  Fifteen minutes later, Martin Gebauer, my other team-mate, and I were having breakfast, listening to the rain.  At 3:00 I suggested we wait a bit longer, knowing that owling would be pointless in these conditions, but at 3:30 we made the decision to go anyways.  We set off on the road to Max Lake, our headlamps illuminating the raindrops.

We climbed up the big hill to the bottom of Husula Highlands and were greeted with our first bird—the song of an American Robin.  As we reached Max Lake the rain seemed to be letting up a bit, a Common Poorwill sang loudly from the hillside, and three Soras answered my whistles from the marsh.  Maybe the day wouldn’t be a total wash-out.  By 4:00 we were up the valley in Flammulated Owl country.  The poorwills were singing all over the place and the Townsend’s Solitaires were tuning up, but we couldn’t get an owl to respond to our hoots.  We knew they were back—I’d heard one here on my first birdathon three days ago—but I guess the cold, wet conditions weren’t conducive to calling.  As the sky brightened slowly, ever so slowly, I managed to call in a Northern Pygmy-Owl and the dawn songbird chorus began in earnest.  Spotted Towhees, Dark-eyed Juncos, Black-headed Grosbeaks and Western Tanagers started to sing, one by one.

We cycled back down the rough road and quickly found some good birds.  A Veery called from the shrubbery—somewhat unexpected considering the late spring we were experiencing.  A few metres down the road a Swainson’s Thrush called, the first I’d heard this year.  And just beyond that, a Hermit Thrush!  That species should be singing in the subalpine by now, but since the plateaus are still covered in deep snow I imagine it was extending its stay in the valley for a week or two.  Back at the marsh, we finally got a Virginia Rail to answer my pathetic imitations, then three flycatchers in a row—Gray, Hammond’s and Dusky.  As we cycled back through the rural suburbs of the West Bench we added new species thick and fast, and by the time we got back to the house at 6:00 a.m. we had 60 species in the bag.  I mentioned to Martin that last year we had a Great Horned Owl family in the yard, but they hadn’t nested this year so they’d be harder to find.  Martin replied, “You know, I dreamt I heard a Great Horned Owl hooting outside the bedroom window last night!”  Since he had been sleeping right next to the spruce tree the owls traditionally perched in when calling, I suggested that maybe it hadn’t been a dream after all, but we were reluctant to put the species on the list on the basis of that.  Ah well.

We had just got in the house to grab our day supplies when the rain began again in earnest.  We had a couple more pieces of toast and some coffee as it poured down, and I began reconsidering my tight schedule for the day.  At 6:40 we decided we had to get going, and just then the rain subsided to almost nothing.  At this fortunate sign, we headed downhill to the Okanagan River.  A Lazuli Bunting flew by on the way down, but the chat wasn’t calling where we had it last year.  Martin stopped to take a second look at a medium-sized bird atop a fir that I had written off as a robin, and shouted “Olive-sided Flycatcher!”  Another bonus bird—maybe the late spring was going to help us after all, bringing a lot of the high-elevation species down to the valley bottom.  A soggy Turkey Vulture moped on a nearby snag and three Great Blue Herons flew out of the new colony near the trail, followed by two Vaux’s Swifts; all nice birds to get.  As we reached the Okanagan River channel a male Wood Duck rocketed upstream and a Downy Woodpecker landed in a cottonwood.  Things were definitely looking up. 

Despite being behind in our schedule, I decided to make the quick trip up to Okanagan Lake, although it had been fairly empty for the past few days.  Again we lucked out—a trio of teal, two Blue-wings and a Cinnamon—flew by, and offshore sat a Western Grebe, a Red-necked Grebe and two Common Loons.  Doug Cooper, a birder from Vancouver, walked up, asking where the teal had gone.  We told him they had disappeared to the east, but, noticing the nice scope he was carrying, offered to look for them.  We were carrying a small scope because of weight and scope-safety concerns on the bikes, so this was a real bonus.  We couldn’t find the teal, but did get three Bufflehead on the far side of the lake.

At 7:35 we turned south and cycled back down the river channel to Skaha Lake.  The Yellow-breasted Chat was finally calling in the Ecommunity Place shrubbery; Martin expressed an interest in actually seeing the bird (he’d never seen one in Canada before), but I convinced him it would be easier (and quicker) to see one at River Road later in the day.  At the muddy oxbow by the airport we added Ring-necked Duck, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Gadwall, and our first real rarity of the day—a single Cackling Goose.  These small geese are rare at the best of times in the Okanagan, and are usually seen in winter or during the April spring migration.

We got to Skaha Lake at 8:20—only 20 minutes behind schedule.  Martin spotted some white objects on the beach and to our delight it turned out to be a flock of four tired American Avocets!  Besides being gorgeous birds, avocets are very rarely seen in the south Okanagan.  And the lake itself—usually pretty barren by late May—had a nice array of ducks: Northern Shovelers, Lesser Scaup, Ruddy Ducks and single drake Northern Pintail.  The latter species is very hard to find in the south Okanagan in May.  Also at the river outlet was a Myrtle Warbler—perhaps a valuable addition if the Yellow-rumped Warbler is officially re-split back into Myrtle and Audubon’s later this year.  As we did last year, we weaved through the runners competing in the Peach City Half-Marathon along the east side of the lake.  Some of the leaders looked totally spent, and I must admit I wondered whether we’d look like that at the end of the day.  When the second-place runner put on a spectacular display of projectile vomiting, though, I swore to ease off on the pace if we got near that state.

The trip down the east side was otherwise uneventful, adding Rock Wren, Pygmy Nuthatch, Clark’s Nutcracker, and, just before the south end, a Herring Gull chasing a Bald Eagle.  That would be our only gull of the day.  All the birds at the north end of the lake had set us back in the schedule, so we had a quick break at the IGA in Okanagan Falls, then kept going south.  I saw that the Meadowlark Festival geology tour my wife Margaret was on was still gathered in the Tickleberry’s parking lot, so nipped in there to pick up a pair of dry socks before continuing on to Vaseux Lake.  We stopped in at the Vaseux Lake Bird Observatory site where we’d had a Long-eared Owl a few days before.  We couldn’t find the owl, but did have one of the highlight experiences of the day.  A Virginia Rail was walking through the shrubbery, giving agitated “keek!” calls.  Thinking it was interesting to have a rail out of the marsh, I peeked in to get a look, then spied two tiny black fluffball young following it.  The parent had found a nice worm for the young, so I backed out and let them finish their breakfast.

At Vaseux Lake I vowed to get back on track with the schedule, so we didn’t cycle up the McIntyre/Irrigation Creek road as we had in the past.  Luckily, a Canyon Wren sang loudly near the highway, and we scoped the Lewis’s Woodpeckers on the snag at the base of the cliffs.  I figured the chances of seeing a Chukar were minimal, though I’d seen one the day before there, and we kept going down the highway, shaving an hour and a quarter off last year’s pace.  We gazed up at McIntyre Bluff for a few minutes, hoping to catch a Peregrine Falcon sailing by, but had to content ourselves with a distant Golden Eagle.  We got to Inkaneep Provincial Park by 12:30, but couldn’t find a MacGillivray’s Warbler—I assume those birds just weren’t back yet.  Luckily, the local pair of Eurasian Collared-Doves were there.

Then it was over the bridge and up River Road, where the male Black-chinned Hummingbird was waiting atop his bush.  A Yellow-breasted Chat sang and Martin spotted it on a bush across the road.  Phew!  The marshes of Hack’s Pond didn’t have anything new, so we pushed on up Secrest Hill.  Literally pushed—I have yet to make it up this wall of a hill without having to walk my bike.  I told Martin it would be easier to hear the Lark Sparrows if we were walking, so was happy to hear that spectacular song as we reached the top.  As he added the sparrow to the checklist, Martin asked when we were going to get Mountain Bluebird—I told him we’d have to wait until White Lake, as all the bluebirds in these ponderosa pine forests were Westerns.  Just then a pair of Mountain Bluebirds flew in and proceeded to feed next to us!

We stopped where the road crosses Park Rill to call for songbirds—we were still missing some easy ones like Cassin’s Vireo.  A nice array of birds came into my pygmy-owl imitation: Red-naped Sapsucker, Townsend’s Warbler (another nice high-elevation species!), Western Tanager, and Nashville Warbler, but no vireo.  A few hundred metres up the road I whistled again, this time hoping for White-breasted Nuthatch, our big miss in the pine forests.  No luck on that front, but a pygmy-owl flew in, followed by a flock of angry robins, crossbills and Cassin’s Finches.  Around the corner we eventually did get the Cassin’s Vireo and headed north for White Lake.  We reached the Willowbrook junction at 2:45 and I realized we had plenty of time to make a detour out to Green Lake.  It would be a totally speculative 13-km round trip, as I hadn’t scouted that route at all lately, but it was good forest all the way, and who knew what would be on the small lakes.

The first lake, Mahoney, immediately came through with three Green-winged Teal, so we were feeling good as we breezed down the hill to Green Lake.  At first it looked empty of new birds, with only a few Barrow’s Goldeneyes, Buffleheads and Lesser Scaups, but we pushed on to the north end and were there surprised with a lovely Eared Grebe!  We turned around and started back south to Willowbrook, when Martin commented that it would be nice if there were a short-cut to White Lake, which was over the mountains due west of us.  I told him there was a track, though it was rather rough and involved a fair bit of climbing.  We looked at each other, and decided on the spot to give it a try—at least it might produce a woodpecker or two.  As we prepared for the climbing part of the trail by removing our long pants and long sleeves, a White-breasted Nuthatch obligingly flew in to be counted.  That was species number 127 for the day, only three away from 130, a very respectable tally for an unassisted bike trip.

The cycle up the trail through the rugged Kearns Creek valley was spectacular in the late afternoon sun.  The rolling hills and meadows, the balsamroot in full glorious bloom turning the grasslands yellow.  Up and up we went, then barrelled down through the pines to the willows along the creek and out to the sagebrush of the White Lake basin.  No new birds and a lot of new sweat, but in many ways it was the best part of the day.  At White Lake the Brewer’s Sparrows were in full song (128!), so we did the loop around the lake and ditched our bikes for a hike through the sage.  Maybe we could find a singing Grasshopper Sparrow or kick up a Gray Partridge.  We did find a Wilson’s Phalarope working along the lakeshore (129) but nothing else new.  Still feeling good, we got back to the bikes and the day started to unravel a bit.  Martin’s front tire was flat.  He put a new tube in, but found that the valve stem didn’t match his (or my) pump, so could only partially inflate the tire.  We gave up plans for a side trip to find the American Kestrels that nest up the Twin Lakes Road and instead limped along to Three Gates Farm, arriving on schedule at 7:00 p.m.  There we had a Northern Saw-whet Owl nest lined up (130!) and, just as important, a great hostess in Doreen Olson, who plied us with several glasses of cold water to rehydrate our sweaty bodies. 

Just as we were thanking Doreen for the water, it began to pour again outside.  This storm had come from nowhere and my thoughts of exploring the lush creekside habitat at Doreen’s, looking for Western Screech-Owl, MacGillivray’s Warbler, and any number of other species missing from our list, went by the board.  We waited under cover until 8:00 p.m. then reluctantly said goodbye to Doreen and were off into the rain.  Martin turned right at Kaleden to rejoin his family at Ponderosa Point and I continued on to Penticton alone.  A car honked as I coasted down the long hill and I looked up to see my car go by with Michael Force waving out the passenger window.  That would be my son Russell’s walking team heading home.  I cycled back up the river channel as darkness fell, then turned up the KVR trail to the West Bench.  As I pushed my bike up the last hill to home at 9:15 p.m., the rain stopped and a Great Horned Owl called—I guess Martin hadn’t been dreaming after all.  Number 131 at kilometre 115.


Note:  I do this Birdathon as a fund-raiser for the Vaseux Lake Bird Observatory.  You can make a pledge if you like by going to my Baillie Birdathon webpage and clicking on Sponsor Me.  Thanks!

Bhutan: the Paro Valley and the heights of Chelela

This is the fourth and last post covering my recent trip to Bhutan, describing a couple of days in the far west of the country.  The Paro Valley (where the country's only airport is located) has some great birding locations, the best of which is Chelela, the high pass between Paro and Haa.

April 12:  Wangdue Phodrang to Paro

Finally, a relaxed morning!  We left the Tiger’s Nest Resort at 0730 and drove straight to the Royal Botanical Park for an hour and a half of good birding.  A Rufous-bellied Woodpecker provided good views for all those who had missed it way back in Trongsa, and a pair of Darjeeling Woodpeckers were also cooperative.  Across the road, three Hoary-throated Barwings put in a timely appearance.  We stopped a short way up the highway to make one last attempt for Ward’s Trogon—no luck, but we did get great views of a pair of Black-winged Cuckoo-Shrikes.  We had lunch at Dochula, where the rain came down and birding was slow, but we had another good look at yellow-throated martens.  After lunch we drove straight on to Paro, marvelling at the new highway we’d driven on the first day without appreciating its true meaning.  At times we were going 60 kilometres per hour! 

After checking into the historic Olathang Hotel (any Bhutanese hotel dating back to the 1970s is certainly historic) most of us boarded the bus again, not wanting to miss the prime birding spot in Paro, the local landfill.  The Paro landfill is located right on the river’s edge, and comes complete with a small marsh.  We immediately spotted one of our targets—a Black-tailed Crake foraging right out in the open, quickly joined by another!  A short walk up the side channel produced at least three Solitary Snipes, a Green Sandpiper and a Common Sandpiper.  I was surprised to see that the Paro River had been radically altered by flood events in the past three years—the bridge I had crossed to see my first Ibisbill in 2007 was totally destroyed and the channel itself seemed rather unsuitable for Ibisbills.

April 13: Chelela

Today was our final full day in Bhutan, so we bit the bullet and got up shortly before 0400 and were off to Chelela, the highest pass on our tour.  The target for the day was simple:  find a Himalayan Monal.  The sky began to lighten as we drove up and up and a couple of Kalij Pheasants signalled the start of the pheasant watch.  After that it was all Blood Pheasants—we saw at least 15 of them on the roadside and had great looks.  But no monals.  By the time we reached the pass (3988 metres elevation) the sun was up, sparkling on the fresh snow that had fallen yesterday.  We decided to drive a short distance over the pass towards Haa, so continued on, our eyes fixed on the roadside.  Suddenly, there it was!  A male monal exploded of the roadbank and soared below us in a long arc, its spectacular iridescent plumage glowing in the morning light.  It was such a rewarding view—the red tail, the white back, the blue-green body, the erect crest. 

Male Blood Pheasant

Elated, we walked for about a kilometre below that point and the birds cooperated.  A small flock of Himalayan (Altai) Accentors foraged on the bank, mixed with larger numbers of Plain Mountain-Finches.  Mixed species flocks of tits, Eurasian Treecreepers and at least four Red-flanked Bluetails moved through the small trees.  We had breakfast on the roadside, then drove back up to the pass.  At a big yak pasture we saw more than a dozen Eurasian Blackbirds, obviously a migrant group heading north—this species can be hard to find in Bhutan.  Back on the sunny side of the pass we managed to find a singing male White-browed Rosefinch, then a male Common Rosefinch.  The clouds to the north parted long enough for magnificent views of Tsherimgang and Jomolhari, two of the sacred mountains of Bhutan.  One last stop in the upper forests produced a lovely surprise—a male Collared Grosbeak.  We were back to the hotel for lunch, then had some serious shopping time in the stores of Paro.  Before supper we drove up the valley for views of the amazing Tiger’s Nest monastery, then on to the end of the road at the ruins of the Drugyel dzong.  There, a Eurasian Hobby flew around the walls, perching on the huge cypress trees next to the ruins.  We had a nice farewell dinner in a restaurant in Paro, giving us an opportunity to thank Rinchen and Namgyel for all their work over the past two weeks.


April 14:  Paro to Kathmandu

We had an early flight to Kathmandu, so said goodbye to Rinchen and Namgyel at the airport and waited for the flight.  It was almost an hour late, likely because we were flying with the Prime Minister of Bhutan who was off on an official visit to Nepal.  We checked into the Kantipur Temple House hotel again and spent a relaxing afternoon shopping and chatting.  Before dinner we moved to the courtyard on the hotel roof to see the high Himalaya glowing in the sunset while Cattle Egrets, Black-crowned Night-Herons and Black Kites flew to their roosts.

Bhutan birding part 3: the fabled east

I didn't get to eastern Bhutan in my first trip to the country in 2007, so I was looking forward to this part of the trip with great anticipation.  The road from Thrumsingla to Lingmethang, as well as being spectacular beyond belief, has been touted as one of the great birding routes in the world.  We would be camping in two fabled locations--the high forests of Sengor, home of the Tragopan Satyr, and in the subtropical forests of Yongkhola.

April 7:  Bumthang/Jakar to Sengor via Thrumsingla

The rain had stopped before dawn and we left the Swiss Guest House under cloudy but dry skies.  A walk down the hill from the hotel produced the local Bumthang specialty—Eurasian Magpie, a corvid that is strangely restricted in Bhutan to this one valley.  We stopped at the bridge over the Jakar River to look for Ibisbill, and Marg quickly found one, then two, on the rocky bar just upstream.  Everyone had great looks at them, remarking how they blended in so easily with the round river rocks at a distance but looked so striking with their long, red, down-curved bills at close range.  It was a great relief getting this classic Himalayan species after missing it in Paro and Thimphu!  Three male Eurasian Wigeon dabbled in a river backwater nearby.  We drove fairly steadily after that, climbing up to Sheytangla with only two brief stops for raptors—another Himalayan Griffon and a Northern Goshawk.  We stopped for a walk just before the pass and found a flock of subalpine forest species—Red Crossbills, Coal and Grey-crested Tits, and a male Red-flanked Bluetail.  A few Eurasian Nutcrackers provided our best looks yet at this species that looked so different from the North American Clark’s Nutcracker, yet sounded and acted more or less the same.  We saw four Green-tailed Sunbirds then picked up the best bird of that stop—a gorgeous male Fire-tailed Sunbird.


Beyond Sheytangla (3596 metres elevation) we descended into the Ura Valley, then climbed once again to Thrumsingla, the pass at the boundary between central and eastern Bhutan.  We stopped for lunch before the pass, enjoying a Golden-spectacled Warbler and a pair of Long-tailed Minivets among other visitors to our picnic area.  Near the pass, three Black Kites soared into the clouds, obviously migrating through the area.  There was still plenty of snow on the north facing slopes at Thrumsingla (3780 metres elevation), covering the ground under the rhododendrons and firs.  The forests were quiet though, so we kept driving down through the forests to Sengor.  Just past the village we found our campsite set up on a roadside pull-out, with fabulous vistas of old-growth hemlock forests and misty mountains.  Before supper we got back in the bus for a short drive down the road—the Satyr Tragopan drive.  Our eyes were glued to the roadsides ahead, but it was sharp-eyed Namgyel who spotted not one, but two tragopans at different spots a few kilometres down the road.  And, as had been the case for several species, everyone remarked on how the field guide didn’t come close to doing this bird justice.  The richness of its red plumage was incredible against the green foliage.  We all whooped for joy over these birds—especially Anne, who had come on this tour at least in part after reading about the Satyr Tragopan in the book “100 Birds to see Before You Die”.

April 8:  Sengor to Yongkhola

We were up early this morning, and a chilly morning it was.  The ice droplets on our tents clattered as we stumbled out for coffee and tea.  A Satyr Tragopan gave its mournful call from the hill above camp as we breakfasted.  We birded around camp until 0730.  A Grey-sided Bush-Warbler sang around the tents, eventually showing itself for everyone interested, but a Red-headed Bullfinch proved more uncooperative.  Once on the bus, the road to Yongkhola lived up to its legendary reputation, clinging to soaring cliffs and intersecting waterfalls through Namling.  “Beware of shooting boulders” was a popular sign. 

We reached our Yongkhola camp at noon and spent the afternoon relaxing and birding along the road below the camp.  The subtropical flavour of the forest was evident in its birds, such as Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrike, Little Pied Flycatcher, Black-chinned Yuhina and Rufous-breasted Bush-Robin.  A Golden Babbler sang from the fern-covered roadbank and a flock of Rusty-fronted Barwings moved through the bamboo.  A Brownish-flanked Bush-Warbler was well seen by most as it sang from the shrubbery below camp. As at Tingtibi, we fell asleep to the calls of Mountain Scops-Owls calling from the forest.

Old growth hemlock, Sengor camp

April 9:  Yongkhola and LIngmethang

Camping made it easy to get up early, and birding around camp produced some nice birds, including a Collared Owlet, which nicely showed the false eyes on its nape.  Rinchen found a small flock of Black-throated Parrotbills, but the rest of us had no more than glimpses of the birds as they moved through thick shrubs along the road.  After breakfast, we boarded the bus and drove down to Yongkhola and beyond to Lingmethang.  A female Scarlet Finch flew across the road and allowed itself to be refound after all had got off the bus.  At a stop below Yongkhola, Simone spotted a Speckled Piculet which cooperated nicely as it foraged on roadside shrubs. Nearby, three Rusty-flanked Treecreepers worked the treetrunks.  Scimitar-babblers put in a good show with extended looks at a White-browed, a pair of Rusty-cheeked and a glimpse of a Streak-chested.  We drove as far as the Black-tailed Crake marsh, where we had a couple of peeks at the crake but certainly no extended views.  We stopped at a creek-crossing for lunch where we’d had distant views of Green Magpies on the way down.  A Bay Woodpecker put in an appearance in the gulley below us—it’s always nice to look down on birds rather than craning your neck upwards in this mature forest.  As we drove back up the hill we spotted a small flock of White-rumped Munias, along with a family group of capped langurs.

The best birding of the day came as we drove back through good forest habitat a few kilometres below the camp.  A few birds flying across the road suggested a flock, so we piled out of the bus to investigate—and what a flock it was.  Red-tailed Minlas, White-browed Shrike-Babblers, Whiskered Yuhinas, Nepal Fulvettas and a good number of Himalayan Cutias (the species has recently been split in two: Himalayan and Vietnamese) moved through the trees.  I played the cutia recording and was surprised at the number of them as they crossed the road—18 in all!  Before dinner we walked up to the corner above camp and had some frustrating moments trying to lure a Lesser Shortwing and a couple of Slaty-bellied Tesias into view as they sang from the tangles below.

April 10: Yongkhola to Bumthang

After another early breakfast, we walked down the road to a known Wedge-billed Wren-Babbler site, but were greeted with silence by the reputed denizens of the gulch.  A nice view of a Crimson-breasted Woodpecker at the campsite was much more accommodating. As we drove back up the hill we briefly heard a Ward’s Trogon deep in the valley below us but could not locate the bird.  A flock at the same spot produced more cutias and the only sighting we had of a Green Shrike-Babbler.  Above Namling a group of three female Crimson-browed Finches were a nice find.  We stopped just below Thrumsingla for lunch, where Irving and I, wandering off for a pitstop, saw a Common Rosefinch singing from the top of a fir.  Farther up we glimpsed a few more rosefinches and a big flock of Plain Mountain-Finches, but the best find there was a male White-winged Grosbeak accompanied by two females.  Over the pass we were enveloped in a snowstorm and marvelled at the cyclists climbing the mountain road.  And some people think birders are crazy!  One of the cyclists surprised a Blood Pheasant that ran across the road and gave us a brief look at this gorgeous species.  We arrived in Jakar at 5:30 p.m., just in time for some handicraft shopping.


April 11:  Bumthang to Wangdue Phodrang

This was another day of long drives, the schedule being driven more by road closure times than birding opportunities.  Despite a strong sentiment for a relaxed departure time to take full advantage of the comfortable mattresses of the Swiss Guest House, we were up at 0530 and off by 0630 to catch the 0930 road-block opening at Trongsa.  En route, we found out that the opening was at 10:30, leaving us a full hour for birding!  We took advantage of this good fortune in the Chumey Valley, stopping in farmland west of town to look for Beautiful Rosefinches.  It was a complete change of habitat for us and we revelled in the skylarking Oriental Skylarks, flocks of Olive-backed Pipits, Rufous-breasted Accentors hopping through farmyard bushes and hoopoes “hooping” from the trees.  And there in the field next to us, were a small number of Beautiful Rosefinches including a couple of, well, beautiful males.  We pushed on over Yotongla, surprising a “flurry” of Snow Pigeons just before the pass.  On the other side we were lucky enough to see a pair of Alpine Accentors on the roadbank.  We arrived at Trongsa a bit ahead of schedule, but snuck through the roadblock with some minor subterfuge.  During our lunch stop at Chendibjee, we heard that the next roadblock opening (near Nobding) was actually earlier than we thought, so we had to push on over Pelela without stopping.  That change put us into Wangdue Phodrang early as well, so it was easy to make the decision to go straight to Punakha for one last try for the White-bellied Heron before supper. 

We took the new road on the east side of the Punatsangchhu, stopping briefly to watch another (the same as last week?) Pallas’s Fish-Eagle and a flock of Red-rumped Swallows.  We were quickly up to the Phochhu and into heron country when small van coming toward us on the road stopped us with frantic waving.  Out jumped Rinchen Singye, the guide on my previous trip to Bhutan in 2007.  After quick hugs and greetings, Rinchen said “The heron is there in the river, just five minutes ahead—you better get going before it leaves!”  We took his advice and continued on, stopping at the point he mentioned.  We quickly scanned the river with no success, but Rinchen (Tshering, our guide) asked a passing farmer about the heron, who casually pointed it out in the river opposite us.  It was foraging in the middle of a shallow riffle, and was almost invisible to binoculars with its dark grey plumage against the dark water.  But in the scope we had glorious views of it in its breeding plumage finery.  The passing farmer turned out to be a local who kept track of the herons in the area, part of a group of people deeply concerned about the conservation of this species.  Recent population estimates suggest that there may be as few as 25 or 30 breeding White-bellied Herons in the world, though parts of its range, particularly in Burma, are poorly known.

Birding Central Bhutan

Bhutan is often divided into three regions:  west, central and east.  Central Bhutan is bounded by two passes on the national highway--on the west by Pelela (3420 metres elevation) and on the east by Thrumsingla (3780 metres).  We spent four days birding central Bhutan this time; hardly enough but certainly a good introduction to the region.


April 3: to Phobjikha and Trongsa

When Rinchen suggested a later departure today, we were happy to sleep in until 0630 and get onto the road by 0730.  We drove east from Wangdue Phodrang through the beautiful Dangchhu valley, its lower hillsides cloaked in the purple blooms of Indigofera shrubs.  The first of many nice birds of the day was a lovely male Blue-capped Rock-Thrush along the roadside, topped quickly by magnificent views of a Crested Serpent-Eagle.  A Kalij Pheasant dashed across the road just before we got to the Yellow-rumped Honeyguide cliffs at Khelekha, a few kilometres west of Nobding.  We stopped at the cliffs and Rinchen quickly spotted the honeyguide near the huge honeycombs hanging from the rocks.  Other stops near Nobding produced good warblering, including good views (and songs!) of Yellow-browed, Greenish and Chestnut-crowned Warblers.  As we approached Lawala, Rinchen suggested that we go into Phobjikha to see a lingering Black-necked Crane.  Everyone heartily agreed, so we made the turn and were quickly in the dwarf bamboo meadows of the famous subalpine valley.  A Northern Harrier flew across the road but had vanished by the time we got out of the bus for a look, replaced by a kettle of 10 or so Himalayan Griffons.  Some of us got quick looks at a pair of Oriental Skylarks on the road, but they weren’t singing in the noonday sun.  At the bottom of the hill we saw another small group of griffons, and watched open-mouthed as one flew directly at the bus, only pulling up to clear the window at the last second.  Having only seen this species from a distance before, I reveled in the opportunity to watch several birds at very close range.


Black-necked Cranes, Phobjikha, November 2007

We went straight to the crane information centre, where Rinchen quickly found the lone crane in the scope, foraging on the far side of the valley.  We all got good looks, then went next door to the Phuntshocholing Farmhouse, a guesthouse owned by Namgyel’s family, for lunch.  After an excellent meal topped off with butter tea, we went back up to Lawala and on to Pelela, the main pass west of Trongsa.  Birding was rather quiet there in the mid-afternoon, and we spent much of our time trying to get decent looks at some very skulky Spotted Laughingthrushes.  Perhaps the biggest surprise at the pass was a quick flyover of a Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo, first spotted as it sailed over the trees with its amazing tail waving behind it.  We were well behind time by now, so drove quickly through the valleys below the pass, stopping briefly for photos of the impressive stupa (chorten) at Chendebji.  It was early evening as we approached Trongsa, its white dzong glowing through the dusk above the awe-inspiring Mandechhu Valley.  We checked into the Yangkhil Resort, happy with its obvious comforts and good food, but disappointed to find the entire region without electricity due to a transformer accident.  So much for charging our batteries before camping! A couple of Mountain Scops-Owls called from the woodland below the hotel as we went to bed.

Phobjikha Valley

April 4:  Trongsa to Zhemgang and Tingtibi camp

The rain poured down all night but we woke to a sunny morning, a good sign for our long drive down the Mangdechhu to Tingtibi.  Clara and I were the only ones on time for the 0630 bus departure, and spotted a Rufous-breasted Woodpecker from the parking lot—it pays to be punctual!  A couple of stops in the fine forests just south of Trongsa produced some nice flocks including a stunning Blue-beared Bee-eater and a Black-winged Cuckooshrike.  A pair of Spotted Forktails flew up from the roadside, but proved difficult to see well, unlike the pair of Little Forktails nesting at a bridge crossing lower down towards Samcholing.  Down and down we went, through the terraced paddies to the banks of the Mandechhu where the forest was brightened by many flowering Bauhinia trees.  We had great looks at a Black Eagle actually soaring below us at one point!  Along the Mangdechhu we reached a point where the river had been dammed somewhat by a debris flow coming in from a valley to the west, and there, on one of the few bits of calm water in Bhutan, was a Great Crested Grebe!



Bauhinia blossoms

We decided to have lunch just past the bridge at Wangdigang, since the towering trees along the river were known to harbour Beautiful Nuthatch.  Birding was great there—flocks of Black Bulbuls in the flowering cotton trees, a pair of little Grey-capped Woodpeckers, a small group of Silver-eared Mesias and even a pair of magnificent Sultan Tits.  We had great looks at Chestnut-bellied Nuthatches, but couldn’t find any of their Beautiful cousins.  A fine view of a Rufous-necked Hornbill made up for that, though—this huge bird is rare throughout its range in the southern Himalayas and has been extirpated entirely from neighbouring Nepal.  After a relaxing lunch, we went up to the ridgetop town of Zhemgang, then wound down again to our roadside campsite at Tingtibi.  The first site was already taken by another birding group, so we continued a few more kilometres to another site along the same creek.  After supper we fell into our tents to the sound of Mountain Scops-Owls calling from the forest.



Golden Langur, Tingtibi

April 5:  Tingtibi

We crawled out of our tents at first light and shared stories over morning coffee, celebrating the small victories of camping (such as the presence of peanut butter on the table!).  Several of us had heard a series of descending, yodel-like screams between 0200 and 0230.  Realizing I hadn’t been dreaming after all, I did some reading up on possible origins of this call and came to the conclusion that it could have only been a Spot-bellied Eagle-Owl.  Unfortunately we didn’t hear the call the next night.  Highlight of breakfast was a very cooperative Hair-crested Drongo perched atop a tree in our camp clearing.  After breakfast we got on the bus again and drove back towards Zhemgang for 15 kilometres or so, stopping and walking occasionally.  Birding in this subtropical forest was excellent.  Two Asian Barred Owlets called from the forest but refused to show themselves despite my best attempts at imitation.  A pair of Kalij Pheasants crossed the road and this time offered great looks.  A bit of work got us good views of a pair of Little Niltavas down a roadside gulley.  We searched more sites for Beautiful Nuthatch without success (strike two), but were happy with a lucky sighting of a Pale-headed Woodpecker.  After another relaxing lunch along the roadside, we worked our way downhill again. An enormous Great Hornbill posed in a tree for good looks, then took off, showing the striking black-and-white pattern on its broad wings and tail.  At one point I saw a medium-sized brown bird fly back through the forest parallel to the road; amazingly John found it again and we had excellent scope views of an Asian Barred Owlet.  Most of us walked the last two kilometres to camp and some had brief looks at both Pin-tailed and Wedge-tailed Pigeons.  After supper we tried to call in the scops-owls again without success.

April 6:  Tingtibi to Bumthang

Today was to be our longest driving day, and events conspired to make it even longer.  We were up at first light again and left after breakfast, stopping at multiple spots to try for Beautiful Nuthatch (strike three!). After puzzling over a partiallly visible dove, Margaret suggested Barred Cuckoo-Dove, solving the mystery! We spent some time trying to call a Chestnut-headed Tesia out of its tangled shrubbery, but had good looks at a pair of Blue-throated Flycatchers while we tried.  Nearby, a mating pair of Greater Yellownapes were a big hit.  The forests just before Zhemgang were alive with cuckoo song, and we had good looks at both Common and Large Hawk Cuckoos.  A small thrush that flew up from the road proved to be a female Tickell’s Thrush.  We wanted to time our drive through the construction zone past Wangdigang for the noon-hour break, so had an early lunch there. A nice Streaked Spiderhunter was the highlight of that stop, as well as superb views of a pair of Rufous-necked Hornbills.  As evidence of the lack of traffic on National Highway 4, we picnicked in the middle of the road (it was the only flat shady spot Namgyel could find) and only had 2 trucks go by us in the hour we were there. 


Subtropical forest, Tingtibi

We drove on through the construction site after lunch, only to find that the road was closed at a second blasting zone along the Mangdechhu.  We were stuck there for over an hour in mid-afternoon, but managed to make the best of it by studying a nice mixed flock of bulbuls (Red-vented, Mountain, Ashy and Black), as well as a group of four Brown Dippers.  We had a pit stop in Trongsa at 5 p.m., then drove on over Yongtola in the gathering darkness and rain, reaching the Swiss Guest House in Bumthang/Jakar in time for a late but very welcome supper.

Next post:  birding eastern Bhutan:  Thrumsingla, Yongkhola and Lingmethang