The road between Ura and Limithang in eastern Bhutan
by K. David Bishop, from OBC Bulletin 29, May 1999.
Bhutan, often referred to as ‘Shangri La’, is surely a paradise on earth for those birders privileged enough to visit this tiny Himalayan kingdom. Encompassing an area of just 47,000 km2 and tucked away in the moist, floristically rich eastern Himalayas, Bhutan has recently cracked its door ajar, permitting birders to sample some of its truly sumptuous avian delights. David Bishop reports.
I first explored Bhutan in 1994, and since then I have returned each spring, to lead bird tours for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours. The sheer unadulterated beauty and pristine nature of this country, with seemingly endless forests, draws one ever onward. The fascinating and relatively unaffected cultures and, perhaps above all, an opportunity to experience a small window into what the majority of the Himalayas must once have looked and sounded like, are just some of the factors that make Bhutan such a very special place.
Despite Bhutan’s small size, over 600 species have been recorded from the Kingdom, including nearly 70 which have been added during the last ten years. And what fun it has been to be one of the few to visit the country and document some of these additions. Several other species may eventually be found, including such sought-after ‘myths’ as Wedge-billed Wren Babbler Sphenocichla humei and Rufous-bellied Shortwing Brachypteryx hyperythra. Of Bhutan’s 614 species, 16 are listed as Threatened and 31 Near-threatened by Collar et al. (1) and Bhutan is one of the best places to see some of them. Although the country does not host any endemic species of its own, it lies within the Eastern Himalayas Endemic Bird Area (as classified by BirdLife International) and harbours at least 12 ‘Restricted Range’ species.
Bhutan may be small, but within its borders is an extraordinary range of habitats: from some of the Himalaya’s most extensive and least disturbed subtropical forests, upwards through truly exquisite warm and, at higher elevations, cool broadleaved forests to towering evergreen forests of fir, hemlock and spruce. The Eastern Himalayas are notably moister and much warmer than areas further to the west and, as a consequence, the tree-line occurs at a much higher elevation; c. 4,250 m vs c. 3,330 m. Above the tree-line are extensive alpine pastures which from late spring to early autumn present one of the great botanical spectacles on our planet.
The entire country is bisected by a well-maintained paved road, permitting relatively easy access to habitats from 150 to 3,750 m. This extraordinary feat of engineering extends northwards from Phuntsholing in the south-west, on the border with India’s Jalpaiguri district, to Paro and Thimphu. There the road turns eastwards at a mid-point in the country over a series of high passes via the fortified town of Tongsa, with its spectacular hanging Dzong, to the relatively highly populated town of Tashigang. The route continues south past the university town of Sherubtse and descends the Himalayas in a series of breathtakingly dizzy slopes to the border town of Somdrup Jonkhar and, once again, the plain of the Brahmaputra valley. One of the features of Bhutan is that birding, especially in mid to late spring (late March to mid-May), is good virtually anywhere below 3,030 m. Unlike many parts of Asia one is not obliged to seek out a park or reserve or remnant patch of ‘good-looking’ habitat, since any stop, even in the midst of farmland, can produce exciting birds. Notwithstanding, the mixed broadleaved forests are much richer, and therefore more exciting, than the rather slow-going monotypic stands of blue pine and, particularly, chir pine. Clearly the former is the habitat upon which to focus one’s efforts.
Fortunately the very best and most accessible area of mixed broadleaved forest can be found along the road between Ura and Limithang (henceforth referred to as the Limithang Road) in eastern Bhutan. This, in my opinion, is one of the most exciting birding sites in Asia! From Thrumsing La (= pass) at 3,750 m the Limithang Road descends through a seemingly unending series of loops and switch-backs that take one through some of the most awe-inspiring, forest-clad slopes to be found anywhere in the Himalayas. Driving here is not for the faint-hearted and the Namling ‘Death Drop’ has to be witnessed to be believed! This incredible road presents an unparalleled opportunity to bird what would otherwise be impossibly steep slopes. Fortunately, nearly the entire stretch of road and its surrounding forests are incorporated in the Thrumsing La National Park.
Approximately 240 species of birds have been recorded along the road and it is likely that many more species will be added to this list as more birders visit the area and visits are undertaken at different times of the year. To date observations cover the months of late February to mid-June with one visit in October.
Ura via Thrumsing La to Sengor (altitude 3,100-3,760-3,050 m)
Leaving behind the relatively dry Ura Valley, one ascends through forests of gigantic firs, often with an understorey of rhododendron. The road for a few kilometres is precipitous in the extreme, with steep drops that reveal a landscape defying description, until the pass at Thrumsing La is finally reached. The urge to press on quickly to Thrumsing La should be contained as the forests along this section of the road hold much promise but are rarely worked. In early spring they are often partially blanketed in snow. Consequently, spotting coveys of the striking and, here, relatively confiding Blood Pheasant Ithaginis cruentus is fairly easy. Occasionally Wallcreepers Tichodroma muraria shuffle across a rock face or fly out over the void, displaying their unmistakable flight pattern. Look too for accentors foraging at the side of the road, especially Alpine Prunella collaris, Altai P. himalayana and occasionally Robin Accentors P. rubeculoides. Spotted Nutcrackers Nucifraga caryocatactes are constant companions in these forests but the spectacular Collared Grosbeak Mycerobas affinis is much less predictable. Sometimes they are seemingly absent whilst at other times they occur in great gold-and-black flocks.
From Bhutan’s highest road-pass the road descends to the village of Sengor which, on clear days, can be seen through the trees, a tiny settlement of shingle roofs and lush fields. But don’t rush! This is home to one of these mountains’ most special birds, the Himalayan Monal Lophophorus impejanus. Much less confiding than the Blood Pheasant they are nevertheless seen regularly here, quietly digging for tubers in the patches left by melted snow. Sibilant chattering notes will attract your attention and lead you to your first mixed tit flock. A major feature of these high-elevation forests, the flocks contain as many as five species of tits including Rufous-vented Parus rubidiventris, Coal P. ater, Grey-crested P. dichrous, Green-backed P. monticolus and, only occasionally in such a rarified atmosphere, Yellow-browed Tits Sylviparus modestus. Such activity draws a number of travelling companions, including White-browed Fulvettas Alcippe vinipectus, Ashy-throated Phylloscopus maculipennis and Lemon-rumped Warblers P. chloronotus and Green-tailed Sunbirds Aethopyga nipalensis. With luck one of these flocks may include a stunning male Fire-tailed Sunbird A. ignicauda. Emerging into the welcome sunlight that Sengor brings, look out for rock-strewn fields for they are not what they seem: flocks of up to 100 handsome Snow Pigeons Columba leuconota regularly feed here. If you are lucky you may also find them roosting under an overhanging cliff along the road, just below the village.
Sengor to the Namling ‘Death Drop’ (altitude 3,050-2,400 m)
Before continuing on, stop in Sengor for a cup of traditional suja, a concoction of tea, butter-milk and salt. Just witnessing the way it is made is an event in itself!
Several switch-backs below Sengor bring you to an ideal campsite, set in the last open field worthy of the name, well before the bottom of the valley is reached which is still many hours driving away. With views of seemingly endless ridges of untouched forests, lit up by flowering magnolias and rhododendrons and entranced by bird song, this is truly the place to spend the night. The hills reverberate to the calls of hill partridges Arborophila spp. and Oriental Skylarks Alauda gulgula. Just a switch-back up the road and with luck, you should find a pair of Spotted Laughingthrushes Garrulax ocellatus. A pair of these stunning birds has been present at this spot every year that I have visited Bhutan.
The little known Bar-winged Wren Babbler Spelaeornis troglodytoides, an attractive bamboo specialist, only occurs at high elevations, just below Sengor. Despite its distinctive song this is the only site in Bhutan at which I have encountered this species. Check the bamboo-covered, almost vertical, rock faces alongside the road c. 1 km below Sengor as at least four pairs are in residence here. Other mouth-watering species you may encounter include: Satyr Tragopan Tragopan satyra; Crimson-breasted Woodpecker Dendrocopos cathpharius – a moderately common resident; Slender-billed Scimitar Babbler Xiphirhynchus superciliaris; Fire-tailed Myzornis Myzornis pyrrhoura – one of the most desirable of the Himalayan specialities, it seems to be nowhere common throughout its range, although the upper elevations of this road appear to be a more reliable site than most. Just walking this road, with its ever-unfolding vistas of forest waiting to be explored, and dramatic lighting patterns as great shafts of sunlight rupture passing storm clouds, leaves an indelible image on the memory.
Namling to Yongkhala Camp (altitude 2,400-1,500 m)
Wandering through the luxuriant warm broad-leaved forests that characterise this section of the Limithang Road is to enter a fairy-tale land. Mighty boughs are encrusted with daintily flowered orchids and the trees literally drool with a bizarre array of epiphytes – mosses, lichens, liverworts and filigree ferns help to conceal a seemingly endless array of avian gems. This is the home, par excellence, of such rare and little-known species as: Chestnut-breasted Partridge Arborophila mandellii – recently discovered just above the campsite at Yongkhala; Satyr Tragopan – surprisingly, apparently uncommon here although it may overlap with the little-known Blyth’s Tragopan Tragopan blythii at lower elevations; Yellow-rumped Honeyguide Indicator xanthonotus; the quite stunning Ward’s Trogon Harpactes wardi – seen by the author on the first VENT tour to the Kingdom in 1994, the first record since the 1960s; Rufous-necked Hornbill Aceros nipalensis – this magnificent but sadly threatened species is moderately common from 1,600 to 2,200 m, but, unlike elsewhere within its range, it has never been hunted in these woodlands and, as a consequence, it is notably confiding – on one occasion a pair flew in, perched overhead and then peered inquisitively at us as we leisurely ate our breakfast!
Depending on the prevailing temperature, each year these hills resound to the persistent but evocative songs of 6-7 species of cuckoo: Large Hawk Hierococcyx sparverioides, Hodgson’s Hawk H. fugax, Indian Cuculus micropterus, Eurasian C. canorus, Oriental C. saturatus, Lesser C. poliocephalus and Drongo Cuckoos Surniculus lugubris. A great opportunity to learn the calls of these species and how to differentiate between them! Occasionally, one encounters large groups of swifts zooming low at canopy level, permitting excellent views of Himalayan Swiftlets Collocalia brevirostris, White-throated Needletails Hirundapus caudacutus and Fork-tailed Swifts Apus pacificus. Speckled Wood Pigeons Columba hodgsonii and Wedge-tailed Green Pigeons Treron sphenura are circumspect and easy to overlook, whereas Blue-capped Monticola cinclorhynchus and Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrushes M. rufiventris are quite splendidly unmissable. Lesser Brachypteryx leucophrys and White-browed B. montana Shortwings, Little Pied Ficedula westermanni, Ultramarine F. superciliaris, Pygmy Blue Muscicapella hodgsoni Flycatchers, and, with a great deal of luck, the exquisite Sapphire Flycatcher Ficedula sapphira; bush robins Tarsiger spp.; redstarts Phoenicurus spp.; the rare Blue-fronted Robin Cinclidium frontale; Purple Cochoa Cochoa purpurea; Sultan Tit Melanochlora sultanea; nesting Nepal House Martins Delichon nipalensis; all three tesias – the delightful Chestnut-headed Tesia Tesia castaneocoronata can actually be easy to see right along the roadside; at least four species of bush warbler, of which Grey-sided Bush Warbler Cettia brunnifrons appears to be by far the commonest, are all to be found along this stretch of the roadside.
Above all things though, this road is an especially wonderful place for babblers. To date a total of c. 50 species has been recorded including: a dozen laughingthrushes – Grey-sided Laughingthrush Garrulax caerulatus being of special note; Red-faced Liocichla Liocichla phoenicea; four scimitar babblers including the peculiar bamboo-dwelling Slender-billed Scimitar Babbler Xiphirhynchus superciliaris and the striking but difficult to observe Coral-billed Scimitar Babbler Pomatorhinus ferruginosus; five wren babblers including all three species of Spelaeornis so far recorded from Bhutan. Midway down this section of the road, with much diligence, it is possible to find one or two pairs of the threatened Rufous-throated Wren Babbler Spelaeornis caudatus. This extreme skulker appears to favour dense scrub on very steep hillsides, within forest and near small streams. Other species in this section include Cutia Cutia nipalensis; the rare Black-headed Shrike Babbler Pteruthius rufiventer; Golden-breasted Alcippe chrysotis and Yellow-throated Fulvettas A. cinerea; seven yuhinas including the uncommon White-naped Yuhina Yuhina bakeri; at least four parrotbills including such rarities as Great Conostoma oemodium and Greater Paradoxornis ruficeps and Lesser Rufous-headed P. atrosuperciliaris Parrotbills. And surely that gem of gems the Long-billed Wren Babbler Rimator malacoptilus must lurk somewhere here?
Encounters with cardueline finches are few and far between, probably because most if not all species encountered are just moving through, refueling en route to their breeding grounds at higher elevations. Occasionally one’s breath will be taken away as binoculars stray upon a tree lit up like a Roman candle with Scarlet Finches Haematospiza sipahi. Now and then one bumps into one of the rosefinches (Dark-breasted Carpodacus nipalensis, Dark-rumped C. edwardsii and Crimson-browed Propyrrhula subhimachala) quietly foraging in a dank, bramble-covered gully. As anyone who knows Asian birds will attest, identifying even the sumptuous-looking males is a challenge. All three species of bullfinch, including the uncommon Grey-headed Bullfinch Pyrrhula erythaca, can be found from time to time as can that very special prize, the Gold-naped Finch Pyrrhoplectes epauletta.
Yongkhala to Limithang (altitude 1,500-700 m)
The forests below Yongkhala comprise a mosaic of traditional farmlands, relatively dry woodland, scrub and subtropical forest. Although somewhat more disturbed than habitats at higher elevations, these lower-elevation habitats support numerous species that are rarely, if ever, encountered above Yongkhala: Speckled Piculet Picumnus innominatus; Red-headed Trogon Harpactes erythrocephalus; Blue-bearded Bee-eater Nyctyornis athertoni; Blue-throated Flycatcher Cyornis rubeculoides; White-crested Laughingthrush Garrulax leucolophus; Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch Sitta castanea and White-rumped Munia Lonchura striata. Occasionally mixed flocks of Spot-winged Mycerobas melanozanthos and White-winged Grosbeaks M. carnipes gather to feed in fruiting trees, a spectacular sight against the backdrop of the forest-clad slopes of the area.
The narrow Shongkar Chu Valley, bisected by a wild, tumbling stream and surrounded by a patchwork of grazing meadows and terraced fields, delimits the bottom of the Limithang road. Very quickly the road that follows this stream enters increasingly drier, more austere terrain dominated by chir pine. On my first visit to Bhutan I camped alongside the Shongkar Chu, awakening to the incantations of farmers as they prepared prayer flags and a vociferous flock of spectacular Green Magpies Cissa chinensis. White-crested and White-throated Laughingthrushes Garrulax albogularis babbled, countered by the piercing songs of male Plumbeous Redstarts Rhyacornis fuliginosus staking out their linear territories. All was brought to an instant hush as the shadow of a Black Eagle Ictinaetus malayensis swept by. The evening before, a Black-tailed Crake Porzana bicolorhad scuttled across my path as we arrived, presaging the unending excitement of birding the Limithang Road. I cannot wait to return.
- Collar, N. J., Crosby, M. J. and Stattersfield, A. J. (1994) Birds to watch 2, the world list of threatened birds. Cambridge, UK: BirdLife International