Chelela Pass revisited

Chelela Pass revisited:  Warning: Long Post with lots of pictures

When: October 2019          Weather:  Cold to Cool.  7-20C from daybreak till the afternoon

Leica M10P 35mm Summilux,  Nikon P900, Sony Alpha55 with 70-200mmG lens




Inauguration of the new Eye Center in Thimphu on the occasion of its inauguration by her majesty, the Queen Mother: Gyal Yum Kesang Choden Wangchuck National Eye Centre (GKCW NRC)

In Thimphu to attend the inauguration of the new eye hospital in the national referral centre, I had a day free to bird.  This time I was delighted to engage the services of Norbu and Tshering from Bhutan Birding, who are specialists in birding Bhutan.   I had hoped to do a day trip to Punakha but was advised that for a day trip it would be challenging so although I’d done Chelela Pass in 2016, the advice (which turned out to be good from Norbu) was to go to Chelela Pass to hunt the Himalayan Monal and Blood Pheasant among other birds.

We set off from the Terma Linca Resort just outside Thimphu at 4am and arrived near the highest point of Chelela Pass as the sun rose, casting its brilliant orangey hues on the Himalayan range…


From the window of our 4WD, the dawn sky was a spectacle to behold


The first rays of light picked out Jomolhari, the second highest peak of Bhutan at more than 7500m

Passing the peak of Chelela Pass at 3998m, we drove on for a few more kilometers to look for the pheasants, to no avail.   We walked a bit and birded a bit….


First of many lifers this morning was the brilliantly coloured Blue fronted redstart, seen near the Chelela pass


Tickell’s Leaf Warbler


Rufous fronted tit…well camouflaged


white winged grosbeak backlit by the morning sun


Himalayan Buzzard (dark morph) from a gazillion miles away

Not having found our pheasants on the road to Haa, we turned around and started birding on the way down, stopping for coffee and brekky just below the pass…


This was where we stopped for tea…surrounded by mountains


and the changing autumnal colours…


I was enjoying my coffee when Tshering yelled “Monal!!” We cast our eyes across the valley to see this multicoloured blob scurrying across the slope


Apologies for the blurred record shot, but it appeared for all of a couple of seconds and all I could do was point and shoot….even with such a blurry picture, the brilliant combination of colours simply exploded from the green background….an image of the Himalayan Monal that will live long in the memory…

Despite observing the area for a while longer, he just refused to emerge… we carried on birding down the road, my guides stopping every so often to take a walk and look…


Himalayan red flanked bush robin or Himalayan blue tail


Rufous vented tit


A Eurasian or Hodgson’s treecreeper


Buff barred warbler


Red crossbill


Whilst the Tiger’s Nest in paro (here seen across the valley from the Chelela pass area gets all the limelight (and the gazillion tourists who climb it!), there are other monasteries etc all over the mountains…


Halfway down the mountain from Chelela pass, we turned up a small gravel road leading to this impressive edifice..the Kila nunnery, where nuns go for their retreats away from the temptations of Paro/Thimphu…whilst Kila nunnery is not as famous as the Tiger’s Nest, it is nevertheless still stunning and far from other irritating tourists!


A view across the valley showed the yellow pines or larch trees dotted among the evergreens…


the short trek up to Kila Nunnery…to look for snow pigeons


Black faced laughing thrush near the nunnery


Many snow pigeons were perched on the rock face above the nunnery


View across the valley from the nunnery…a spotted nutcracker livening up the scene


Snow pigeon achieved, we continued birding as we descended with occasional stunning vistas….


Rufous sibia


the always spectacular scarlet minivet


Grey crested tit


white browed fulvetta


And as we neared the bottom of the mountain, Norbu asked if I’d like to detour up to another monastery, the Dzhong Drakha, to look for the yellow rumped honeyguide so we did.


It was another splendid structure overlooking the padi fields of Paro Valley


We dipped on the honeyguide as the bee’s nests had been abandoned but the views and buildings were stunning


A lady was winnowing in the sunshine


so we descended the mountain to Paro for lunch about 1pm and to continue looking for a few things afterwards….


Along the river outside Paro, we sought the Black tailed Crake which was exceedingly shy and afforded us only brief glimpses as he darted around the undergrowth….

In 2016 when I came, I’d only had a fleeting glimpse of the unique Ibisbill when it was chased away by feral dogs…so when Norbu suggested we tried to get better pictures, I was totally game for it…


We stopped near this building in Paro and walked the river bank…


We were fortunate to find 3 Ibisbills not too far away…here an adult Ibisbill with its red beak and black face, wading in the fast flowing river, feeding


Side view of Ibisbill with lovely red beak


Ibisbill with grey beak; the Ibisbill is one of the rarest and most sought after birds for birders as it’s only seen at altitude with shingle river beds, but here in the Wangchu River, they are almost commonplace and sightings are easy!

By this time, it was nearly 4pm and with the sun setting around 530pm, we headed back to Thimphu….but Norbu spotted something in the river whilst driving….


It was a brown dipper….the last bird of the outing!


So it was that our 12 hour day trip to ended with many lifers and getting one of our target birds.  Norbu and Tshering really went beyond what was expected, bringing me to the nunnery and dzhong, taking our time in seeking out the special birds of Bhutan.  They both spoke excellent English and knew their birds and habitats, plants and mountains well…a great resource and fun pair to be with.

After dropping me off at the Terma Linca Resort just outside Thimphu, I used the last half hour of daylight to bird along the Thimphuchu or Wangchu River next to the resort….unbeknownst to me, as they were leaving, they had spotted another special bird,the Crested Kingfisher  near the entrance of the resort…Tshering actually went back to tell me but couldn’t find me….  Norbu then took the trouble to email me that night telling me where I might find it again the next day…..look for my next post!  I recommend them highly and if you have only a day to spare in Bhutan, this is a great way to spend it!


Tshering and Norbu of Bhutan Birding


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