What you need to know about birdwatching in Bhutan
The best seasons and locations for birdwatching in the Kingdom of Bhutan.
Tucked away in a corner of the Himalayas, Bhutan’s pristine forests translate into a rich fauna habitat. In fact, Bhutan is home to 7% of the world’s bird species; 783 species as of 2022, to be exact. Hence, the Kingdom is quickly earning its reputation as a bird-watcher’s haven.
The white-bellied heron (Ardea insignis), the rarest of the heron species, was photographed in Bhutan and featured in the Guiness Book of World Records 2012. To put into perspective how rare this bird is, there are only 50 to 200 of them in this world.
The bird is so rare that world number three birder (at 9,685 as of July 2022), Mr Peter G. Kaestner, visited Bhutan just to sight two birds — the white-bellied heron and the fulvous parrotbill.
That said, Bhutan is home to 26 endangered birds.
1. Baer’s pochard (Aythya baeri)
2. Black-necked stork (Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus)
3. Sikkim wedge-billed babbler (Sphenocichla humei)
4. Blyth’s kingfisher (Alcedo Hercules)
5. Chestnut-breasted partridge (Arborophila mandellii)
6. Dark-rumped swift (Apus acuticauda)
7. Eurasian curlew (Numenius arquata)
8. Eurasian peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus)
9. Beautiful nuthatch (Sitta formosa)
10. Ferruginous duck (Aythya nyroca)
11. Grey-crowned prinia (Prinia cinereocapilla)
12. Great hornbill (Buceros bicornis)
13. Lesser fish-eagle (Ichthyophaga humilis)
14. Palla’s fish-eagle (Haliaeetus leucoryphus)
15. Pallid harrier (Circus macrurus)
16. Rufous-necked hornbill (Aceros nipalensis)
17. Rufous-throated wren-babbler (Spelaeornis caudatus)
18. Satyr tragopan (Tragopan satyra)
19. Ward’s trogon (Harpactes wardi)
20. White-rumped vulture (Gyps bengalensis)
21. White-throated bushchat (Saxicola insignis)
22. Wood snipe (Gallinago nemoricola)
23. Yellow-rumped honeyguide (Indicator xanthonotus)
24. Black-necked crane (Grus nigricollis)
25. White-bellied heron (Ardea insignis)
26. Blackish-breasted babbler (Stachyris humei)
For the bird enthusiasts out there, Bhutan is the perfect place to spot, identify, and photograph as many bird species as possible. Who knows, you might even make some rare sightings!
The best time for birdwatching in Bhutan
Spring (March to May) and autumn (September to November) are the best times for birdwatching in Bhutan as the weather is at its mildest and driest.
- Spring Birds (March to May)
Springtime is when the native species of Bhutan come out to play. They venture into areas more accessible to humans. This includes the white-bellied heron mentioned above; you will find these elusive birds around riverbanks and lakes.
A great place to sight these species is the Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu rivers in Punakha where you stand the chance of sighting rare birds like kingfishers, dippers, wagtails, waders, ibisbill, or Pallas’s fish eagle.
- Summer Birds (June to October)
Summer is monsoon time, but that does not mean that there are no birdwatching opportunities at all, although some patience is required. Sub-tropical and wetland regions like Phobjikha valley are the places you want to be during this time.
If birdwatching during the summer appeals to you, consider going in June. Many species are likely still around from spring and you just might catch sight of green bee-eaters, blue flycatchers, yellow-rumped honeyguides, and the nuthatches.
- Autumn and Winter Birds (October to February)
This is the best time to witness the majesty of the black-necked cranes at Phobjikha valley. These birds are iconic; dare I say a must-see when in Bhutan? Tourists from all over the world travel to Bhutan to see them. The birds are so beloved by the Bhutanese that you would find images of them painted everywhere from houses to shops.
When the cranes arrive in the valley, they circle overhead Gangtey Monastery thrice before settling elsewhere. They do the same before departing at the end of spring. Eerie, huh? The farmers of Phobjikha valley believe that the black-necked cranes bring blessings to their crops.
The Bhutan Bird Festival (Birdathon)
Every year between October and November, the Bhutan Bird Festival takes place in Tingtibi, Zhemgang, about 40km from Trongsa. This is another hotspot for birders, due in most part to the fact that Zhemgang is home to more than 500 bird species. You’ll find the white-bellied heron and all four species of native hornbills here.
Over the three days of the bird festival, bird-lovers get together for food, drinks, and fun activities. In 2019, as a lead-up to the event, the organisers planned a birdathon, an expedition to spot birds in the area. The bird-watchers trekked through difficult terrains and managed to sight 3,793 local birds, the bulk of which —194 species — were seen between Batasey and Tingtibi. Of the birds they crossed paths with, the most common ones were the red-vented bulbul, the Nepal house martin, and the orange-bellied leafbird.
From the looks of it, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused the Bhutan Bird Festival to take a break. But do keep an ear out; hopefully the annual event kicks back into action soon.
Where to go birdwatching in Bhutan
Excited to go on a birdwatching adventure? Here are some popular bird-watching spots in the Kingdom (including the ones mentioned above):
- Phobjikha valley
- Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu rivers in Punakha
- Near Sankosh bridge, just above the national highway
- Wangdue Phodrang valley
- The Black Mountains
- Bumthang valley
- Namling (most popular bird-watching location in Bhutan)
Many Bhutan tour agencies offer birdwatching tours too.