Birds of Bhutan
Bhutan is said to be one of the most ecologically diverse nations in the world, and is a paradise for bird lovers, with something like 700 species. Our Alumni Association tour isn’t really focused on birding, but I’ve been keeping my eyes and ears open for birds when I get a chance.
My favorite bird so far, hands down, is a largish one that looks something like an exotic woodpecker with a plume on its head and a long bill. (See photo at right.) There were a pair of them pecking the ground for insects outside our hotel in the Phobjikha Valley, and I asked a few people if anyone knew what they were. At one point I struck up a conversation with a pair of travelers from Bangalore, and I asked: “Are you birders?” One of them said, “Of course,” as if everyone who visits Bhutan is a birder. I described the birds in the lawn and asked what they were, and they told me they’re common hoopoes. A great name, if you ask me, and a great-looking bird.
Otherwise, most of what I’ve seen is fairly similar to what we have back home. I’ve seen a few magpies (common in the western U.S.), a ton of crows and/or ravens, and a lot of sparrows that I can’t identify but that I suspect are not terribly exotic.
We also see a lot of some sort of grackle that’s black with white wings and a tail.
On our hike in the Phobjikha Valley, we heard a cuckoo calling loudly and repeatedly, but didn’t see it. I also heard but didn’t see a bird that, if I were back home, I’d say was a red-bellied woodpecker; they have a very distinctive chirring sound. The bird book at our hotel here in Paro says they have something called a rufous-bellied woodpecker over here, with a similar call, so who knows.
Probably the most famous bird in Bhutan is one that spends its winters here and the rest of the year in Tibet: the black-necked crane. It’s endangered—we watched a documentary that said only 800 of them remain, though I’ve since seen higher estimates. It’s also considered sacred to the Buddhists who make up most of Bhutan’s population. Supposedly the penalty for killing one is life in prison.
The cranes aren’t here right now, alas—their summer breeding grounds are north of here, on the Tibetan plateau in the Himalayas.
As evidence of their special standing among Buddhists, when the cranes fly south to Bhutan’s Phobjikha Valley in November, they circle over the roof of the Gangteng Monastery several times before landing in the valley. And they do the same on their way out of town in March. This isn’t some sort of apocryphal story—we saw some pretty cool documentary footage of them doing it.
There’s an organization here called the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature, an NGO that runs the information center we visited. A few of the Penn State travelers bought some handicrafts in the center’s gift shop, happy to know that a portion of the proceeds will benefit those beautiful cranes.
Tina Hay, editor