My following article appeared in the 2011 issue of "Window on Bhutan" a yearly magazine published by the Royal Bhutanese Embassy, New Delhi, India.
BHUTAN: Birding Capital of the World
The recently released Guinness Book of World Records 2012 features an extremely rare bird photographed in Bhutan – that of the White-bellied Heron (Ardea insignis). It is listed as the rarest of the Heron species. The bird, whose global population is estimated at between 50 to 200 individuals, is so rare that Professor Peter Frederic PhD, a world renowned heron expert at the University of Florida, USA had never seen it before, until his coming to Bhutan in 2006. Since then, he has been coming to Bhutan every year and has greatly contributed to the ongoing study of the bird’s biology and ecology, spear-headed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature (RSPN).
My photo of the White-bellied Heron as it appears in the Guinness Book of World Records 2012
Although the presence of this bird is reported in a number of other countries such as Burma and India, Bhutan is the only country where it can be seen without much difficulty. As on last count, 26 individuals have been enumerated in Bhutan where they can be easily sighted along the Punakha Phochu/Mochu Rivers and around the Berti/Mangdechu areas in Zhemgang. It is for this reason that American diplomat and one of the world’s top birders, Mr. Peter G. Kaestner, choose to come to Bhutan, in April, 2009, to sight two of his life birds - the White-bellied Heron (Ardea insignis) and the Fulvous Parrotbill (Paradoxornis fulvifrons). Upon request from the Royal Bhutanese Embassy, New Delhi and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Thimphu I accompanied Mr. Kaestner on his birding trip to Punakha. Not surprisingly, he was able to sight both his life birds - in a matter of less than one and a half days. Elsewhere in the world, it would be years before one can sight one’s life bird, if at all.
Mr. Peter G. Kaestner who was then the Minister Counselor for Consular Affairs and Counsel General at the US Embassy, New Delhi is considered among the world’s top 5 birders, having recorded a life list of 8,399 birds, as of 2011, a record rivaled only by Ms Phoebe Snetsinger, another American, who has a record of over 8,400 sightings.
Among Bhutan’s famous birds are the Satyr Tragopan (Tragopan satyra), which ranks as the 10th most colorful bird in the world.
Another bird that is the delight of most of the birders who visit Bhutan is the unusual Ibisbill (Ibidorhyncha struthersii) – ranked as the 21st most beautiful bird of the world.
The world birding community considers Bhutan as one of the prime birding destinations in the world. Besides the White-bellied Heron, Bhutan is home to a large number of other globally endangered bird species, such as the Ward’s Trogon (Harpactes wardi), Beautiful Nuthatch (Sitta formosa), Rufous-necked Hornbill (Buceros hydrocorax), Pallas's Fish Eagle (Haliaeetus leucoryphus), Blyth’s Tragopan (Tragopan blythii), Chestnut-breasted Partridge (Arborophila mandellii), Himalayan Monal (Lophophorus impejanus), Wood Snipe (Gallinago nemoricola) etc., to name a few.
The diversity of Bhutan’s avifauna is stunning. At close to 800 species, it is almost equal to the combined population of 925 species found in all of USA and Canada. The country’s wide altitudinal range produces suitable climactic conditions that help support Bhutan’s enviable biodiversity. However, its conservation is the result of the progressive environmental policies of Bhutan’s successive monarchs and the people who, being mainly Buddhists, revere and respect all natural elements. Bhutan is perhaps the only country in the world that has made a constitutional commitment to maintain a forest cover of 60% for all times. It is no wonder then that Bhutan has been the recipient of prestigious international awards such as the UNEP’s Champion of the Earth Award as well as the coveted J. Paul Getty Conservation Award.
In recent times, Bhutan has gained prominence on the world stage as the country that propounded the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH). While it may take a while for world leaders and economists and planners to adjust to the paradigm shift, a few thousand birders around the world have been finding their Gross Personal Happiness (GPH) at a short stretch of forest in Eastern Bhutan that offers an unmatched variety of avifauna. Birders around the world have declared that short stretch of broad-leaved forest between Sengore and Yongkola in Mongar Dzongkhag as the “Birding Capital of the World.”