In search of Pheasants in Bhutan

Bhutan Birding - in search of Pheasant

My snow trekking trip in December was scrapped due to many reasons so another Himalayan trip was much coveted. I started to look for options and as I laid my requirements, Bhutan emerged as a rising star. Last year during Manas trip, I had brief introduction with Bhutan’s pristine forest, cold eastern Himalayan weather and abundant bird life and I knew there is still a lot to be explored. With opportunity in hand, I started collecting more information about Bhutan.

I have habit to read trip reports to equip myself better and one day as I was skimming internet for that, I found one report “Birding in Western Bhutan” written by the ace birdman of India, “Mr. Bikram Grewal”. He mentioned Bhutan has incomparable bird species and birds are not as shy as Northeast India, I read that as ‘better photo opportunity’, Bingo! I was completely convinced and asked my wife who agreed to accompany me.

Once place was decided my wife arranged logistics (she is really good at that) and we were all set to visit our neighboring ‘Kingdom of Happiness’. We decided to visit Bhutan during spring season to bring some colors of rhododendron into our photographs.

Plan was charted around three main places, Paro, Thimphu and Wangdue Phodrang /Punakha. I knew I’m going to miss the migratory birds (‘Black-necked Cranes’) during spring so I left Pobhjika out; by convincing myself with another trip to Bhutan in coming winters.

Our birding route map
Our birding route map

We flew in to Paro, (Bhutan’s only international airport) via Druk Air, (only airline which operate in Bhutan). Flying into Paro is an experience in itself. Here flight takes place under perfect visual conditions only, as pilots have to dodge mountaintops that rise over 5,000 feet above the adjoining landscape.

Arial view of Paro Valley
Arial view of Paro Valley

After landing in Paro we met our guide Yeshey and driver Kelley. They appeared in their official attire ‘Gho’, with a welcoming smile. Just by spending some time with them we were sure that this trip is going to be a memorable one. They reminded me my first meeting with Karma Ji, our guide in Ladakh, similar face, similar dressing and similar sense of humor. I started relating why this place is known as ‘Kingdom of Happiness’, I think happiness is in the air of Himalayas.

Paro –
Our first day in Paro was easy; we visited Paro Dzong (fortress-monastery), Paro Museum and Traditional Bhutanese medicine center. I must say Paro Dzong is one of the finest living pieces of Bhutanese architecture; Built with stones instead of clay, the Dzong was named Rinpung, meaning “heaps of jewels” but Rinpung and all its treasures were destroyed by the fire in 1907. Still some renovation work is going on.

Paro Dzong
Paro Dzong

We had local Bhutanese food during lunch at a local restaurant and headed for Thimphu as we had planned our night stay in Thimphu. En-route we saw many common as well as some endemic birds. Blue Whistling Thrush, Coral-billed Chug and Oriental Turtle Dove were present almost everywhere.

Oriental turtle dove at Paro Dzong
Oriental turtle dove at Paro Dzong

Thimphu –
Thimphu is capital and largest city of Bhutan and also home to approximately 100,000 inhabitants including the Royal family. One interesting fact about Thimphu is that it is the only capital city in the world that does not use traffic lights. There are ATMs, internet café and abundance of restaurants. We took an evening stroll in the Thimphu market and visited some knick-knack shops. Shopping in Bhutan is not cheap and you need to have good bargaining skill to buy goods at a reasonable price. We had dinner at Migmar accompanied with local brewed Druk 11000.

Chele La –
Second day started pretty early in the morning, woke-up at 3 AM and by 4 we were ready to depart for Chele La, ‘the highest motor able point in the country’. This mountain pass rises at an altitude of 3988m (13084 ft) above MSL.

It took us around 2 and half hour from Thimphu to reach Chele La.Sun was up but due to clouds lighting condition was still poor for photography, we could hear bird songs everywhere though. As we started ascending light was slightly improved and this started giving structure to those tiny beautiful creatures, jungle was lively now. Very first bird we spotted was a White-collared Black Bird, as we go further up we saw some Large-tailed Shrikes sitting on the electric wires and then we encountered a group of White-throated Laughingthrush (my first lifer of this trip). The white-throated laughingthrush (Garrulax albogularis) is a species of bird in the Leiothrichidae family and as other members of this family they are pretty vocal. They are primarily insectivorous, although here I found them feeding on berries.

White-throated laughingthrush, near Chele La
White-throated laughingthrush, near Chele La

After spending some time with these beautiful birds we continued. Winding our way up through Blue Pine Forests and higher up through Silver Fir and Spruce we soon began to encounter Pheasants. First one was a male Kalij pheasant followed by a female.

Kalij pheasant (male), near Chele La
Kalij pheasant (male), near Chele La

I had seen Kalij pheasant back in India (mainly in northern and north-eastern region) and I always found them shy, a slight movement and they will go inside the bushes. This time I got bit lucky to be able to make slightly better images than a record shot.
We were slowly moving towards the summit, now Sun had gained some power and suddenly snowcapped peak of mighty Jomolhari Mountain became visible. Looking through my viewfinder I almost felt I could touch it, but in reality it will require almost a week of rigorous trekking for a trained person to climb these peaks.

Jomolhari peak, near Chele La
Jomolhari peak, near Chele La

After gaining an altitude of around 2500m we could feel the change in weather; it was windy and cloudy, sun was now playing hide and seek. Yeshey told me that in another 45 mins we will reach Chele La.

Road to Chele La was long narrow clearing in the trees completely carpeted with beautiful purple Primulas and to add heavenly touch to this scenery a beautiful Satyr Tragopan appeared out of bushes and started playing with primula flowers.

Satyr Tragopan, near Chele La Bhutan
Satyr Tragopan, near Chele La Bhutan

Satyr Tragopan is an elusive and beautiful bird. I have not seen any other bird carrying comparable ornaments; crimson back with white dots like diamond studded kingly robe and seeing one in such a picturesque setting was just a big dream come true. Sad part is this bird species belongs to near threatened category (IUCN).
After spending 30 odd minutes with such sought after bird we move on and hardly at a distance of 500m, I saw a pair of Blood Pheasant another lifer for me but this time my coordination with Kelley (our driver) was not perfect and he drove 200-300m ahead, when he realized that I was signaling to stop. He reversed the vehicle but till now that family was alert and moved into dense foliage. Soon my excitement was turning into disappointment because I missed a shot of my most coveted bird which was sitting in best ever possible lighting condition. I got down from vehicle, hiked and walked to get another opportunity but as always said wildlife photography is all about one single moment and I had to accept that I missed my moment. Kelley was looking more disappointed than me, so tried to overcome his discomfort and declared breakfast break. Yeshey told in another 5-10 mins we will be reaching Chele La and that will be better location for having our breakfast, and he was absolutely correct. Sandwiches, fruits, boiled eggs and black tea, it felt like the best breakfast I ever had.

As we were having our breakfast a Buff-barred warbler (another lifer) flew-in at nearby shrub and posed for me.

Buff-barred warbler, at Chele La
Buff-barred warbler, at Chele La

Any mountain pass gives a heavenly pleasure but there was something different at Chele La. It was windy and very cold occasional appearance of the Sun was only relief. We were surrounded by sky touching mountains, prayer flags and green carpeted valley. Rising clouds from the valley had created such dramatic scenery, which could not be painted in words.

Clouds rising from down the valley, at Chele La
Clouds rising from down the valley, at Chele La

Those who had not experienced Himalayas may envy and those who have been there can relate the feeling of joy at such tranquilizing abode. After energizing ourselves a bit we moved around on-foot to explore the area better, and suddenly I saw a pair of black shiny eyes observing my movements over the ridge. I behaved as if I have not noticed and moved on to hide me behind a big rock. After examining the complete situation a young barking deer (also known as Muntjac) popped out and walked just a few meters away from me.

Barking deer (also known as Muntjac), near Chele La
Barking deer (also known as Muntjac), near Chele La

After playing little hide and seek with Muntjac, I walked farther Chele La and there I saw many colored flags flying up in the air. I have seen similar prayer flags in Ladakh. Buddhists believe that the prayers and mantras written on these flags will be blown by the wind to spread the good-will and compassion into all-pervading space.

Prayer flags at Chele La, Bhutan
Prayer flags at Chele La, Bhutan

At around 10 AM we started descend. On the way I got down from the vehicle at few places and walked to make few more frames. A “Large-eared Pika” was highlight along with Spotted Laughingthrush, Blue-fronted Redstart, Rufous-breasted Accentor, White-browed Rose finches, Yellow-billed Blue Magpie and a low flying ‘Black Eagle’ (always wanted to have a shot of this emperor of mountains).

Large-eared Pika, near Chele La
Large-eared Pika, near Chele La
Yellow-billed Blue Magpie, near Chele La
Yellow-billed Blue Magpie, near Chele La
A low flying Black Eagle near Chele La
A low flying Black Eagle near Chele La

We reached Thimphu at around 2 PM, had lunch and took some rest. In evening we visited Thimphu Dzong and after having early dinner at 7PM we called it a day.

Wangdue Phodrang / Punakha –
From Thimphu, we proceeded further east to Wangdue Phodrang passing through Dochula (3,050m). On top of Dochula there is a concentration of 108 chortens (stupas) built in memory of Bhutanese soldiers killed in the 2003 war against insurgents. The sight was breath taking and I’m not aware of any other place in world where we have so many chortens exist together.

108 chortens (stupas) at Dochula
108 chortens (stupas) at Dochula
108 chortens (stupas) and administrative building at Dochula
108 chortens (stupas) and administrative building at Dochula

From Dochula the descent to Punakha and Wangdue Phodrang valley was long at an altitude difference about 1,800m. The route first passed through temperate type of leafy forest then moved to semi tropical zone. There we recorded many species of birds swinging around abundant orange and banana trees. Eurasian Jay, Spotted Nutcracker, Green-back Tit, Blackchinned Yuhina, Rufous Sibia, Hoary-throated Barwing, White-throated Laughingthrush, Fulvous-breasted Pied Woodpecker were some of the main attraction.

Eurasian Jay near Dochula
Eurasian Jay near Dochula
Hoary-throated Barwing, near Dochula
Hoary-throated Barwing, near Dochula

After some en-route birding and lunch at Punakha we reached our resort at around 2PM. Our stay was booked at a pristine location overlooking the Dang Chu (river). The resort was built in traditional Bhutanese architecture with comfortable and tastefully furnished rooms. Every room had river facing balcony from where one could catch the first rays of sun or soak in the soft Himalayan sunset.

Dang Chu (river), at the back side of Kichu Resort, Punakha.
Dang Chu (river), at the back side of Kichu Resort, Punakha.

I found many birds around and my evening was spent chasing them inside the property. Later in the evening we walk down towards the river bed, sat near the cold flowing water and enjoyed the most memorable sun-set of our life.

Himalayan black bulbul, at Kichu Resort Punakha
Himalayan black bulbul, at Kichu Resort Punakha
Blue whistling thrush at Punakha
Blue whistling thrush at Punakha

Jigme Dorji National Park (JDNP) –
I was carrying a very high expectation from JDPN as this is the largest protected area in Bhutan and one of the most biologically rich areas in the Eastern Himalayan region. We made an early start and after few stops for birding we reached the park. So far there was nothing exciting, only a flying shot of River Lapwing (a near threatened bird species), Grey Treepie (also known as Himalayan treepie) and few commoners.

River lapwing, a near threatened bird species at Jigme Dorji National Park
River lapwing, a near threatened bird species at Jigme Dorji National Park

We decided to break for break-fast and parked our vehicle near a Mo Chu river I went towards river to sprinkle water on my face and suddenly a Brown Dipper flew-in and sat on a nearby rock. We both were surprised but my reflexes were faster and made few frames of this sought after bird. Brown Dipper and another pair of River Lapwing had made my day and after that it was pretty slow so we decided to return.

Brown Dipper at Jigme Dorji National Park
Brown Dipper at Jigme Dorji National Park

I spend evening again at the riverside and got few shots of Plumbeous Water Redstart, which live near fast-moving streams and rivers.

Plumbeous Water Redstart at Punakha
Plumbeous Water Redstart at Punakha

During dinner time I met Yeshey to discuss further plan. We were happy having recorded so many species in last couple of days. But there was something which was bothering me constantly and in fable voice I told him, that I still regret about not been able to click Blood Pheasant. He realized my disappointment and also accounted that weather in Punakha was not favorable either so he asked “how about going Chele La again”. It was like he read my mind and speaking my words through his mouth. I instantly said yes, let’s do it!
It was 5-6 hrs drive from Punakha to Paro and from Paro Chele La is quite near, just 1 hr drive. So we decided to start early morning from Punakha and reach Paro by lunch time, spend night there and then go to Chele La next day morning.
We had to drive through Dochula again so decided to halt there for some time. This small halt turn-out to be a good decision as we made some good shots of Rufus Sibia, White-throated Laughingthrush, Blue-capped rock thrush and many more.

Rufus Sibia near Dochula
Rufus Sibia near Dochula
White-throated Laughingthrush at Dochula
White-throated Laughingthrush at Dochula
Blue-capped rock thrush at Dochula
Blue-capped rock thrush at Dochula

At around 1:00PM we decided to leave from Dochula after a satisfactory quick birding session. I wanted to spend some more time here but we had to match the timing for road closing and opening time as there some road widening work was going on. After leaving Dochula we had not taken any halt and headed straight for Paro. We reached Paro at around 4:00PM, took shower and spend evening at leisure. After having early dinner we retired for the day as there was a big day ahead.
This was our last day for birding and my last chance to get Blood Pheasant so I was pretty excited. Got up early and was ready by 4:00AM, Yeshey arrived at 4:15 and we started for another yet more focused trip to Chele La.
Chele La Again –
This time we took fewer stopovers on the way as I wanted to gain altitude as early as possible, I could not afford to take any chances. Throughout driving-up I was almost hanging outside the window.
Sun was not up, it was only twilight so photography was going to be a real challenge but I knew this was the best time to find these illusive pheasants. After gaining an elevation of around 3000m I heard a Satyr Tragopan calling from the down-hill. Satyr Tragopan has a peculiar call and someone who is not aware of it will surely be scared. We decided to leave the vehicle there and go on foot. As we move little further another call from Tragopan but this time followed by a Blood Pheasant, I knew it’s nearby. My hands were numb and I was moving as silently as I could, avoiding dry twigs and leaves. After climbing about 50m there was a narrow stream, if I cross that and go further up it will join me to the same motor able road. I stopped there to gasp and suddenly saw some object on a dead tree trunk. I pull out my camera, boosted ISO and as I focus I almost screamed, “Blood Pheasant”, I immediately turned quite mode on and made few frames.

Blood Pheasant at Chelela
Blood Pheasant at Chelela

Slowly I moved ahead and made few more frames, by now it was aware of my presence and slowly moved into bushes. I ran like a happy boy towards my vehicle to show my first ever click of Blood Pheasant. My purpose of this trip was accomplished, I got three species of pheasants.

We had breakfast at the same spot where we had last time. After having breakfast we made a video of our memorable day and started descend. Now light was improved and I saw another pair of Blood Pheasant, which allowed me to make some better quality photos, but my first click will always be special and memorable one for me.

Blood Pheasant at Chelela
Blood Pheasant at Chelela

A Spotted Nutcracker took his nut and flew down-hill, maybe he is flying back home. This was my last click of this trip. I bowed my head, collected all that nature had given me in last couple of days and flew back to low lands.

I’m still suffering from high altitude deficiency syndrome!!!

Spotted Nutcracker at Chelela
Spotted Nutcracker at Chelela

Date of Travel – April 29, 2015
Places where I stay –
• Paro – Kichu Resort
• Thimphu – Hotel Migmar
• Wangdue Phodrang/Punakha – Kichu Resort

Credits –
Trip was organized by Nivalink and ITT (International Treks & Tours) collectively.
Thank you Nivalink and ITT for arranging logistics and providing us flexible itinerary.
Big Thanks to Yeshey and Kelley for their support and expertise; without them this would not have been possible.


My Two Cents –
1. Indian Rupee is accepted on par with the local currency, the Ngultrum. Someone asked me to carry Indian currency in denomination up to Rs 100. But I didn’t find any difficulty with Rs 500 or Rs 1000 bill. Almost everywhere they are accepted.
2. Indian phones (whatever subscriber you are carrying) would not work; getting a local sim is easy. You just need to give Xerox of your passport.
3. I found Indian and continental food almost everywhere, but I highly encourage to try local Bhutanese cuisine especially if you are non-vegetarian. For beer lovers Druk 11000 is a must try.
4. There are good chances of finding same bird at multiple locations, so if you miss one at start don’t panic and see if you are going to cover any other similar terrain. I saw many common species in Chelela and Dochula.
5. It depends upon weather, but even if you are travelling in peak summer don’t forget to carry your woolen clothes. Weather on passes is unpredictable, it become very cold if it’s windy.

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