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BHUTAN

19 March–5 April 2016

Bhutan is unspoilt, with over 70% of its land remaining forested; it is therefore considered one of the world’s top biodiversity hotspots. On this exciting new tour we will explore all of its habitats, from snow-capped mountains to alpine meadows and from pristine forests to stunning river valleys, in search of such spectacular and sought-after Himalayan species as Rufous-necked Hornbill, Satyr Tragopan and Ward’s Trogon.

Day 1 Overnight flight from the UK to Calcutta.

Day 2 This morning we will take an internal flight from Calcutta to Guwahati followed by a three-hour drive across the border into Bhutan. During the course of the drive we will keep our eyes open for Little Cormorant, White-throated Kingfisher and Lesser and Greater Adjutants. Time permitting, after checking into our hotel in Samdrup Jongkhar, we will bird the local area. Species we may see here include Indian and Chinese Pond-herons, Striated Heron, Black-crowned Night-heron, Little and Cattle Egrets, Asian Pied Starling, Common Myna, Rose-ringed and Alexandrine Parakeets, Common Tailorbird, Oriental Magpie-robin, Yellow-footed Pigeon, Common Iora and Green Bee-eater. If our luck is really in, we may even find a Blyth’s Kingfisher, Dark-rumped Swift or Black-backed Forktail. Two nights at the Hotel Tashi Gasel, Samdrup Jongkhar (610m).

Day 3 Today will be spent exploring the tropical forest between Samdrup Jongkhar and Deothang. Target birds in this area include Ruby-cheeked Sunbird, Little Spiderhunter, Pied Harrier, Golden-fronted Leafbird, Indian Paradise-flycatcher, Blue-eared, Coppersmith and Lineated Barbets, Long-tailed Sibia, White-rumped Shama, Thick-billed Warbler, Plaintive Cuckoo, Asian Fairy-bluebird, Dollarbird, Wreathed and Great Hornbills, Oriental Pied-hornbill, Puff-throated Babbler and the much rarer Pale-headed Woodpecker and Hooded Pitta.

Day 4 We will make an early start this morning so that we can spend as much time as possible birding the subtropical forest above Samdrup Jongkhar, looking for species such as: Thick-billed and Pin-tailed Pigeons, Emerald Dove, Green-billed Malkoha, Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, Black-naped Monarch, Fulvous-breasted and Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpeckers, Common Green-magpie, Red-faced Liocichla, Blue-winged Laughingthrush, Greater Coucal, Crimson Sunbird, Silver-eared Mesia, Greater Flameback, Grey-bellied Cuckoo, Hodgson’s Hawk-cuckoo, Square-tailed Drongo-cuckoo, White-throated Needletail, Grey Nightjar, Long-tailed Broadbill, Brown Shrike, Slender-billed Oriole, Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike, Ferruginous and Blue-throated Flycatchers, Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher, Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch, Sultan Tit, Himalayan Bulbul, Hume’s, Greenish and Grey-cheeked Warblers, Grey-throated Babbler, Striated Yuhina, White-bellied Erpornis, both greater and lesser subspecies of Rufous-headed Parrotbill, Streaked Spiderhunter, Grey and White Wagtails and Grey-headed Bullfinch. If fortune favours us, we may encounter one of the rarer species in this area, such as Silver-breasted Broadbill, Beautiful Nuthatch or Green Cochoa. The rest of the day will be spent driving approximately 60 kilometres to our base for the night at a camp in Morong, birding en route. Overnight camp at Morong (1600m).

Day 5 We will begin the day by birding around our lovely campsite and returning to have breakfast in these beautiful surroundings before we continue our journey, this time heading for Narphung. The day will be spent birding the 30-kilometre stretch of road between Morong and our destination. The superb forests in this area provide opportunities to add a number of species to our growing lists: Rusty-fronted Barwing, Red-tailed Minla, Hill Partridge, Kalij Pheasant, Bay Woodpecker, Lesser Yellownape, Golden-throated and Great Barbets, Lesser and Asian Emerald Cuckoos, Himalayan Swiftlet, Pacific and House Swifts, Collared and Asian Barred Owlets, Wedge-tailed Pigeon, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Besra, Northern Goshawk, Bonelli’s Eagle and Long-tailed and Grey-backed Shrikes. If we are lucky, we may also find a Spot-bellied Eagle-owl. Overnight camp in Narphung (2000m).

Day 6 Having spent a second night camping in the warm, broad-leaved tropical forests we have another opportunity this morning to bird around the campsite before breakfast. After breakfast, we will continue our scenic drive, with spectacular views of hills, isolated farms and tiny hamlets as we head towards Trashigang. Species we will be looking out for on our 120-kilometre drive include: Grey Treepie, Eurasian Jay, Large-billed Crow, Long-tailed Minivet, White-throated Fantail, Black Drongo, Ultramarine and Little Pied Flycatchers, Rufous-bellied Niltava, European Stonechat, White-tailed Nuthatch, Green-backed and Black-throated Tits, Striated and Black Bulbuls, Aberrant Bush-warbler, Mountain Tailorbird, Striated and White-throated Laughingthrushes, Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-babbler, Red-billed Leiothrix, Green-tailed and Gould’s Sunbirds, Russet and Eurasian Tree Sparrows, Olive-backed Pipit and Yellow-breasted Greenfinch. We may also see the much rarer Long-billed Thrush, White-gorgeted Flycatcher and Maroon-backed Accentor. Overnight at the Druk Deojung Resort, Trashigang (1100m).

Day 7 We will leave Trashigang after an early breakfast and continue our journey via Chazam and Sherichu, from where the road climbs by means of ten hairpin bends (known as the Yadi Loops) in just ten kilometres. From here we will continue to the little village of Yadi. The road passes fields of corn and broad-leaved forests, where we will stop and bird before our final ascent to Kori La at 2450 metres. Here, amongst other species, we may find Scarlet Finch, Grey-winged Blackbird, Sikkim Treecreeper and Grey-sided Laughingthrush. Crossing the pass, we will descend through cool, broad-leaved trees dripping with orchids and fern-lined forests of rhododendrons. Again, we will stop to bird, and we hope to add such species as Maroon Oriole, Common Rosefinch, Hill Prinia, Fire-capped Tit, Bhutan Laughingthrush and Barn Swallow. We will continue to descend to the attractive town of Mongar and on to the subtropical forests around Lingmithang at 650m before we begin to climb again, through breathtaking scenery, to our camp in Yongkola, where we will be based for the next three nights (1700m).

Days 8–9 The warm, broad-leaved forests in this area provide the perfect environment for many avian species, including many of Bhutan’s most sought-after birds, and we will spend these two days exploring both the upper and lower regions of Yongkola. In the breathtaking landscape of the upper region we will bird in a protected area of pristine forests using a paved, yet rarely used road. Our quarry in this area will include some of Bhutan’s most prized species: Slender-billed Scimitar-babbler and the little known and endangered Rufous-throated Wren-babbler. After birding the upper elevations, we will slowly descend to the wonderfully rich forests along the lower section, where ancient trees are festooned with orchids, providing a riot of colour. Trails criss-cross the forests, but few birders venture very far along them, so exactly what awaits us may be a complete surprise! We should encounter: Rufous-throated and Chestnut-breasted Partridges, Rufous-bellied Eagle, Crested Serpent-eagle, Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Blue-throated Barbet, Large Hawk-cuckoo, Oriental Cuckoo, Grey-chinned and Short-billed Minivets, Yellow-bellied Fantail, Blue-capped Rock-thrush, White-browed Shortwing, Verditer Flycatcher, Hodgson’s Redstart, Black-browed and Yellow-cheeked Tits, Ashy Bulbul, Striated Prinia, Grey-bellied Tesia, Grey-hooded, White-spectacled and Black-faced Warblers, White-crested and Rufous-necked Laughingthrushes, Coral-billed Scimitar-babbler, Golden Babbler, Black-eared and the rarer Black-headed Shrike-babblers, Chestnut-tailed Minla, White-naped and Black-chinned Yuhinas, Fire-breasted Flowerpecker and Crimson-browed Finch. As if this wasn’t enough, we also have chances here to see the rare Rufous-necked Hornbill (a bird which is difficult elsewhere but has a healthy population in Bhutan), Speckled Wood-pigeon, the exquisite Golden-breasted and Yellow-throated Fulvettas and two of the Himalayas’ rarest birds: the cobalt Blue-fronted Robin and the elusive and strange Wedge-billed Wren-babbler.

Day 10 This morning we will bird the broad-leaved forests along the upper Namling Road, giving priority to birds we have missed previously. We will return to our campsite for lunch before setting off down the Namling Road to our next destination of Sengor. This is another stunning journey: the road is lined with philodendrons, sheer cliff faces and thundering waterfalls, with views across ridge after ridge of forest-covered mountain slopes. In this prime birding habitat we will look for Broad-billed Warbler, Black-throated Parrotbill, Crimson-breasted Woodpecker, Streak-breasted Scimitar-babbler and perhaps a Gould’s Shortwing. Overnight camp at Sengor (3000m).

Day 11 Dawn is one of the best times of day to spot a Satyr Tragopan and as we are camping in their habitat, we will rise early in order to have the best opportunity to see this colourful and sought-after species. These early hours also afford us our best chance of seeing the rare Bar-winged Wren-babbler before we return to the vehicles and continue our journey. Our drive today will take us up through pristine forests with Spanish moss hanging in long trails from the branches to the high pass at Thrumshing La (3799m), where we will have breathtaking views of the eastern Himalayas. As we descend through forests of towering Hemlock, Spruce, Silver Fir and Larch, we will stop to bird, looking out for flocks of Grey-crested and Coal Tits, Fire-tailed Sunbird, Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher, Ashy-throated and Pale-rumped Warblers, Large-billed and Blyth’s Leaf Warblers, White-browed Fulvetta and Green Shrike-babbler. Other species we may encounter include: Upland Buzzard, Chestnut-bellied Rock-thrush, Red-flanked Bluetail, White-browed Bush-robin, Eurasian and Rusty-flanked Treecreepers, Red Crossbill, Collared Grosbeak and Eyebrowed, Dusky and Black-throated Thrushes. Continuing our journey, we will descend to the valleys of Bumthang, passing through the picturesque village of Ura on our way to Jakar and our hotel for the night. We will stop to bird occasionally and hope to add Great Parrotbill, White-throated Redstart and Indian Blue Robin. Overnight at Kailas Guesthouse, Bumthang (2600m).

Day 12 After a hot drink we will leave early in order to cross the Chumme Valley and reach Yotong La (3353m) at the optimal time for birding. As we drive through this area, regarded as the religious heartland, we will undoubtedly see Black-billed Magpie (the only place it is found in Bhutan) and Red-billed Chough feeding in the fields of buckwheat. Reaching the pass, we will take breakfast before birding this amazing environment. Species regularly seen here include Chestnut-headed Tesia, Stripe-throated Yuhina, Black-faced Laughingthrush, Yellow-bellied Flowerpecker, Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, White-winged Grosbeak and Fulvous Parrotbill. After lunching at the pass, this afternoon we will drive along the Shemgang Road for more birding en route to our hotel for the night in Trongsa. Along this stretch of road we should encounter Barred Cuckoo-dove, Greater Yellownape, Steppe Eagle and Tibetan Serin. Overnight at Yangkhil Resort, Trongsa (2200m).

Day 13 The first part of this morning will be spent birding between Trongsa and Chendibji. After a hot picnic breakfast, we will continue through the village of Chendibji to the Nepalese-style chorten (Buddhist shrine), picturesquely located alongside the river, where we may encounter Brown Dipper, Crested Kingfisher, Fire-tailed Myzornis, Plain Mountain-finch and Yellow-browed Tit. After a short break for anyone who wishes to take a look at the chorten, we will continue our journey up to Pele La (3350m), where, with clear skies, there are stunning views of valleys, hills and mountain ridges leading you up to Kangbum and Jichu Drake, before heading for the sheltered valley of Phobjikha. This is a high-altitude wetland and forms a biological corridor between the national parks of Jigme Dorji and Jigme Singye Wangchuck. It is one of Bhutan’s few glacial valleys and is rich in faunal biodiversity and home to many endangered and rare species including Black-necked Crane. In this area we may find Gold-naped Finch, Golden Eagle, Grey-sided Bush-warbler, Streaked Laughingthrush and Yellow-billed Blue-magpie. Overnight at Gakling Guesthouse, Phobjikha (2700m).

Day 14 We will rise early again this morning and climb through pristine mixed broad-leaved and evergreen forests with dense bamboo undergrowth. Our targets in this habitat will include Spotted Laughingthrush, Rufous-vented and Whiskered Yuhinas, Himalayan Beautiful Rosefinch, Brown and Red-headed Bullfinches and Lammergeier. As we reach Lawa La at 3300 metres, with prayer flags fluttering in the breeze, we will have views across to the snow-capped Jomolhari (7326m), which marks the border between central and western Bhutan. After soaking up the view, we will descend through rhododendron forests to the valley below, where we should see Spotted Forktail, Rufous-chinned Laughingthrush, Himalayan Cutia, Pied Shrike-babbler, Grey-headed Woodpecker and Speckled Piculet. Overnight camp at Rimchhu (Jigme Dorji National Park) (1300m).

Day 15 Early morning birding in this magnificent national park should produce Chestnut-winged Cuckoo, Red-headed Trogon, Asian House-martin, Red-vented and Mountain Bulbuls, Orange-bellied Leafbird, Plain-backed Thrush, Sapphire Flycatcher, Large and Small Niltavas, Little and Slaty-backed Forktails, Spotted Elachura, Rufous-capped Babbler, Blue-winged Minla, Rufous-winged and Nepal Fulvettas, Slaty-bellied Tesia, Ashy and Hair-crested Drongos and Spot-winged Grosbeak. We may also be lucky enough to stumble across a rare Tawny Fish-owl. In the afternoon we will drive along the Pho Chhu to look for Pallas’s Fish-eagle, Chestnut-tailed Starling, Pallas’s Gull and Scaly-breasted Munia. Overnight at Meri Puensum Resort, Punakha (1300m).

Day 16 This morning we will leave the terraced fields and subtropical forests around Punakha before dawn and head for a site where we hope to spot our main target bird for the day: Ward’s Trogon. Other species on our radar will be Mountain Hawk-eagle, Black Eagle and Slaty-blue Flycatcher. After a hot picnic breakfast we will continue to the Royal Botanical Park at Lampelri, which is home to hundreds of species of flora and fauna. We will look particularly for Chestnut-crowned Warbler and Dark-rumped and Dark-breasted Rosefinches. With a bit of luck, we may also encounter one or more of the rare mammals supported by the park: Musk Deer, Tiger, Leopard, Red Panda and Leopard Cat. Our next stop will be Dochu La, an awe-inspiring place with 108 chortens and a road festooned with prayer flags. From here, on a clear day, there are magnificent panoramic views of the high Himalayas, including Gangkar Puensum – the highest peak in Bhutan at 7497m. After what we hope will have been a rewarding day’s birding, we will descend to Paro and our hotel for the final two nights in Bhutan. Two nights at the Hotel Olathang, Paro (2300m).

Day 17 An early morning start will take us up through ancient pine and fir forests to Chele La (3780m), where there are fantastic views of the high Himalayan peaks of Jomolhari (7326m) and Jichu Drake (6989m) and down into the Paro and Ha valleys. Chele La gives us the opportunity to ascend above the tree line into alpine meadows and dwarf rhododendron scrub, where we have the possibility of finding the stunning Himalayan Monal, Blood Pheasant, Himalayan Griffon, Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush, Brown Parrotbill, Eurasian Kestrel, Yellow-browed Warbler, White-collared Blackbird, Blue-fronted Redstart, Rufous-breasted and Alpine Accentors and the stunning Himalayan White-browed Rosefinch. After a hot breakfast we will continue birding in this beautiful area before gradually making our way back to Paro. In the afternoon we will stop by the Pa Chhu, where, camouflaged amongst the glacial stones, Himalayan riverine species such as Ibisbill can be seen as they dip into the snowmelt, searching for food. We should also find Rosy Pipit, White-capped and Plumbeous Redstarts, Blue Whistling-thrush, Oriental Turtle-dove, Eurasian Hoopoe, Black-tailed Crake and Crested Goshawk.

Day 18 We will take a flight from Paro to Calcutta, where we will catch a connecting return flight to London, arriving on Day 19.

General Information There will be some long drives and short walks at altitudes of up to nearly 4000 metres. The climate will vary from cold in the mornings at altitude to quite warm during the day. Some rain is possible, although it is the dry season. There are special health requirements, which should be referred to your GP. Visas are required.

Group Size Maximum group size: 10 with 1 leader, 12 with 2 leaders.

Blood Pheasant

Blood Pheasant

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