When I was a small boy, growing up in the Borders, my father and I shared a passion for geography, maps in particular. We had in the house an enormous Reader’s Digest Atlas, green and gold and to me it was a door to endless adventures. We used to pour over this together exploring landscapes in far off lands, following mighty rivers, looking at place-names and it was on one of these explorations that I “discovered” Bhutan. I remember asking my father what he knew about Bhutan, very little it turned out, so we then opened the Encyclopedia Britannica (no Google in those days) to find out more. Again there was very little. Bhutan seemed to be mysterious, secretive, a country only to be visited in dreams.
Fast forward 40 years, I am married and have an 8 year old son of my own and an enormous map of the world that covers an entire wall of our house. We have adventures on this map and my son can track the movements of his far-travelling dad. Bhutan stood out on the map from the day my wife and I put it up. A beacon guiding my eye.
Birdfair is a wonderful event that Speyside Wildlife attends every year with a team. We love it; it gives us the opportunity to meet our guests and to solidify relationships and forge new friendships. Two years ago I went with Bhutan in mind and to my delight I found that a Bhutanese birding company were present, my heart was hammering with excitement as I went looking for them in Marquee 1. The man I met looked elegant in formal Bhutanese dress and we had a long and positive chat about the posibilities of running a Speyside Wildlife trip to Bhutan. My excitement grew considerably.
My boyhood dream of visiting the mysterious Kingdom of Bhutan has been fulfilled! I travelled to Bhutan at the end of February with 12 superb guests and the country certainly did not disappoint, indeed it exceeded expectations.
We flew from London to Delhi at the end of February, had an overnight in a transit hotel and then flew to the Assamese city of Guwahati. Our flight here hightened the excitement as we passed the wall of the mighty Himalaya, with Everest towering above the rest. On arrival at Guwahati we met up with our Bhutanese guides, both called Sonam and a team of Indian drivers who would convey us to the Bhutan Border. I was nearly there! If I pinched myself would I wake up?
Our journey through northern Assam had highlights of it’s own. We stopped at various places on the outskirts of Guwahati where wetlands held Purple Swamphens, Purple Heron, Cattle and Intermediate Egrets and the superb Asian Openbill. Local fishermen poled through thickly vegetated lagoons and crowds of school children gazed in wonder at us as we scanned the landscape. Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters, Black-winged Kite and a pair of Coppersmith Barbets excavating a nest hole grabbed our attention, but the real highlight of Assam was our visit to the municipal tip!
Mountains of plastic and other rubbish is mana for Greater and Lesser Adjutants. These ancient looking birds were standing like sentinels from a long ago era. If any bird shows the link to dinosaurs it has to be Adjutants, only their mothers could love them, but we enjoyed them despite the smell.
Waking up the following morning, knowing I was in Bhutan, was one of the happiest feelings I have had. The boyhood dream had finally come true. That first morning on the veranda of the hotel was a fabulous experience filled with mynas, Crimson Sunbirds, Chestnut-tailed Starlings, White-rumped Shama, Scarlet Minivet, Slaty-backed and Little Pied Flycatchers, Linneated Barbet and Golden-fronted Leafbird. What colours, what song! Our Bhutan journey was now beginning and we all noticed how much more peacefull it was compared to just across the border in India; fewer people, less traffic noise, generally calmer.
Our journey through the country was from East to West, mainly following the major arterial road or the National Highway. This road winds it’s way from Samdrup Jongkhar in the southeast to Paro in the west. The eastern side of Bhutan is remote and generally less visited than the more developed west and this eastern side is where we started. Exploring tropical and sub-tropical broadleaved forests (some of which were primary forest, untouched by man). In these forests we searched for Rufous-necked Hornbills, Beautiful Nuthatch, Ward’s Trogon and everything else the forest threw at us. Walking through this habitat with enormous trees dripping with epyphitic ferns and orchids and branches with lichen as long as a dwarf’s beard, was a truly moving experience. Just how old was some of this forest?
To get the best out of Bhutan one has to be up early. The birds have a pattern of activity that starts just before dawn and tails off by late morning and then a rise in activity again towards late afternoon. Every morning, therefore, we rose before dawn and had some time birding in the early morning before having breakfast. Our morning and lunchtime meals were another highlight among many. We had a team that went ahead of us and we would find in a beautiful location with table and chairs, hot tea and food waiting. It was delightful. We dined af-fresco with always an enormous choice and lashings of tea/coffee. I have never enjoyed cauliflower as much! The Bhutanese national dish is chilli and boy is it hot, so that was always on offer at meal times too. Chilli cheese is not for the feint-hearted.
White-capped and Plumbeous Redstarts attended every bit of flowing water and we found, at some, delightful forktails; Slaty-backed, Black-backed, Spotted and Little Forktails. Water being a great magnet for wildlife as anywhere in the world.