Bhutan: “Bird paradise” under threat from road widening works

The stretch between Namling -Yongkola stretch, and even till Lingemethang in Mongar, is a haven for bird watchers. It is claimed to be the best place in Asia for bird watching. At this time of the year, bird watchers would be scratching the forest floor for rarest of the rare birds, of which Namling-Yongkola offers some. Situated in the diverse landscape of Phrumsengla National Park (PNP), the habitat boasts of having more than 350 species of birds among which unique species are the Rosefinch, Gold-Naped Finch, Little Fork-tail, Whitecapped Redstart, the Cold Tit, Green-Tailed Sunbird are found. But this is changing now, according to bird lovers in the country and tourist guides specialised in birding. Birdwatchers say the ongoing highway widening work is scaring away the birds if not destroying the habitat. Restriction posed from the Covid-19 would have enriched the habitat, but it is otherwise with man and machines destroying the habitat. A regular bird watcher from Mongar who constantly updates on the Birds of Bhutan Facebook page, a page for bird lovers, Kinzang Dorji, said the birds that were native to Yongkola are not seen anymore. He said the road widening work has forced the birds to leave. “I’ve temporarily given a break from bird watching,” he said. Thinley Wangchuk, a passionate birdwatcher, and co-founder of Bhutan Birdlife Society, said the stretch between Lingmethang and Thrumsengla with elevations ranging from 700 metres above sea level (masl) to 3,000 masl is known as the Bird Paradise of Bhutan and regarded as one of the best in Asia given the huge number of species. He said tourists would spend at least three to four days along the highway to get a glimpse of the “natural beauty”. He said in the absence of a specific birding trail, birdwatchers would use the silent road following the sounds it makes. “It was not difficult to fulfill their wish. With no heavy traffic it was convenient too,” he said. Thinley Wangchuk visited the site in April and earlier this month. “We don’t hear any chirping sounds of birds now. They have migrated to other areas. Some birds are very particular about their habitat,” he said. “Chances of them returning is only 50 percent.” Director and senior guide, of Off to Bhutan Travel, Norbu, said that some bird species found in the Yongkola area are rare and endangered. “Even if tourism returns, the birds will not,” he said, adding that birds like Beautiful Nuthatch and Sikkim Wedge Babbler are rare. Having worked with experts, the birding guide turned proprietor, said that many international birders, including bird experts who travelled worldwide described Namling- Lingmethang as one of the finest sites in Asia. “Apart from being the home to many exotic species, this stretch is home to rare and super skulker species, Wren- Babbler,” he said. “Six of the seven species of Wren Babbler in Bhutan can be seen here.” The stretch is also home to Sikkim Wedge-billed Babbler, near threatened species initially discovered in Bhutan in 2000. Norbu had not been to Yongkola recently, but with more than 20 years of experience as a birding guide, he said that from experience heavy earth-moving machines can scare the birds away if not destroy their habitat. “Habitat of Wren Babblers are often found well-hidden in dense undergrowth which is ultimately damaged by road widening works. There is a good chance we might lose the Sikkim Wedge-billed Blabber for good since we don’t have any other known site for this species in the country.” Members of Birds of Bhutan informally raised their concerns suggesting resurfacing of the highway rather than widening. “But we need to respect the development of the area as well.” Bhutan Birdlife Society is planning to register as a civil society organisation and involves in data collection of bird sighting besides providing technical support to bird watching clubs and encouraging a bird watching culture at the grassroots. “This is because students are the future leaders and it’s important they know about birds to make informed decisions at the policy level,” Thinley Wangchuk said. Confirming the damage caused by blasting and deployment of machinery, forest officials said environmental-friendly measures like identification of dumping yard and formation cutting at standard size have been put in place to ensure minimum environmental damages. “We’re constantly monitoring the work given the sensitivity of the place and there will be no huge impact as it’s only temporary. Once the development activity is over, they will certainly return to their old habitats,” a forest official from Phrumsengla National Park said. Bird lovers disagree. “We will have to look for alternative sites,” said a guide. “Some species are so shy that they will not return after the damage to their habitat,” he said.