Bhutan is split into 19 districts, each of which is administered from a Dzong, or fortified monastery. These are hugely important structures, most of which date back to the 17th Century and as well as being important structures they are also very beautiful. They have commanding positions in the landscape and we were very lucky to visit perhaps the most beautiful of them all, Punakha Dzong. This sits at the confluence of two rivers, the Father and the Mother. From crossing the covered bridge to the Dzong, climbing the incredibly steep stairs to the entrance and visiting the various temples within, this was a highlight for many in the group. A deeply moving experience and hard to imagine that it had all been built out of someone’s dream, there were no blue-prints for the building.
A little way from the Dzong, up the Father River, we encountered the magnificent White-bellied Heron. An incredibly rare bird globally, we had incredible views of this enormous heron as it flew along the river, landed and started to fish. They are very territorial and so thinly distributed, but truly magnificent.
One early morning, from our accommodation at Yongkola, we descended into the valley and walked a section of track adjacent to the river where Crested Kingfishers were perched and fishing. Our target here was Tawny Fish Owl. A huge owl it is primarily nocturnal, but if one is up early enough, they can be seen coming in to roost. We found one in a tree fairly quickly and had amazing views of this spectacular owl despite the leeches!
Our driver, Pasa, had very sharp eyes as well as being a superb, safe driver. On one occasion the bus lurched to a halt. There was a whispered conversation between Pasa and Sonam, our guide who went completely wide-eyed. The bus reversed a bit as Sonam turned to me and said that Pasa had just spotted a Takin. Takins are very strange goat/antelope-like creatures of the Himalayan regions. They have been described as looking like a “bee-stung Moose”, but they are very rarely seen. They are the national animal of Bhutan, but unless you are on a multi-day trek you are unlikely to see one. With excitement palpable among us, we stepped out of the bus to follow Pasa’s pointing finger. There, no more than a hundred feet above us, on the edge of a forested crag was the national animal of Bhutan; Takin. How Pasa spotted it as we travelled we will never know, but this was icing on an already magnificent cake.
Every corner and pass on the road is bedecked with prayer flags, there are Stupa (chorten) at the mountain passes, prayer wheels at natural springs, in villages, monasteries and anywhere else that is significant. Houses are beautifully decorated with images of protective deities (as well as large phalluses) and there are temples everywhere. The Bhuddist culture of the country goes a long way to ensure that the biodiversity is protected. We had remarkably close views of Himalayan Monal at a monastery where Snow Pigeons also came in to look for food.
On our final day in Bhutan we walked the steep, forested track to one of the most remarkable buildings that I have certainly seen; the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. This monastic building is perched on a cliff high above the forested valley and it’s founder travelled to the site on the back of a flying tiger. To look at it from below it is difficult to see how one gets there without the power of flight! There is a strategically placed tea-house half way up the trek that provides a welcome break as well as affording stunning views of the monastery itself. For those who wish to go no further then this is a superb vantage point. To continue to the monastery itself requires a steeper section before descending a series of stone steps to the base of a waterfall before ascending 700 stone steps to the building, but it is worth it. We were lucky enough to have a Lammergeier pass overhead with a Himalayan Vulture. The views are spectacular and the building itself just remarkable, words cannot do it justice.
Bhutan is a superb country, colourful, welcoming, happy and absolutely full of birds. So if you want to see raptors, sunbirds, laughing thrushes, yuhinas, flycatchers, pheasants, trogons, hornbills, sibias, fulvettas, babblers, sivas, barwings, Ibisbill and a whole host of butterflies and magnificent mammals then Bhutan is for you. Did I mention the scenery?