Downhill ride

Our time in Bhutan was coming to an end. We checked out of our hotel in Bumthang and spent the day driving to Lobeysa, a long drive. We passed again through the mixed forest on the way down, catching glimpses of the wonderfully greenish-blue Verditer Flycatchers (Eumyias thalassinus), black drongos with their forked tails (Dicurcus macrocercus) and the bright colours of Scarlet Minivets (Pericrocotus speciosus),

Unidentified ground orchid, Bhutan

On our way up, we’d seen that there was no food on the road, so this time we packed lunch. When we stopped to eat we saw this interesting orchid poking out of the ground next to the road. I have no identification. Can anyone help?

A strange caterpillar, Bhutan

At another stop we saw what looked like a piece of fungus growing on a stone (highlighted in the photo above). Then suddenly it began to move like a caterpillar, its body hunching in the little waves that propel a caterpillar forward. Before I could change the setting on my camera to take a video, the animal had disappeared into a crack in the stone. What a marvellous piece of camouflage. I wish I knew which moth this would develop into.

Dendrobium fimbriatum orchid, Bhutan

Then as we came lower we entered a zone of the forest full of Dendrobium fimbriatum orchids growing on trees. We probably caught them at the end of their flowering season, but they were spectacularly in bloom along kilometres of the road. We wondered how we’d missed seeing them on the way up. They are fairly common and can be found in many parts of India, the Himalayas, and south-east Asia. Still, it takes unspoiled forests of the kind that exist in Bhutan for it to bloom so spectacularly. Bhutan is estimated to have around 500 species of orchids, so we scarcely observed the surface of this immense diversity.

Many years later I came across the wonderful travel book called The Riddle of The Tsangpo Gorges by Frank Kingdom Ward which describes the flora of Tibet and the eastern Himalayas. As I begin to end the description of our trip through Bhutan nine years ago, the wonderful first line of the book comes to mind: "I have often observed that no matter how much I read about a foreign land before visiting it, I find by experience that it differs widely from what I expected."

The Road to Ura

Ura was not a long drive, so we decided to start late. We were not in any hurry to reach our destination, since the purpose of the day’s journey was to spot as many birds on the way as possible. My memory of this trip is jogged by the many photos I took on the way. The road rose quickly from Bumthang. In the mellow sunlight of mid-morning, we saw a patchwork of farms behind us. The featured photo shows a little farm surrounded by tilled land. The white flags of mourning signify the death of someone in the family in the recent past. The flag poles are surmounted by a small disk with a pointy thing above it. The disk is a representation of the sacred lotus flower, and the part above it signifies a dagger of wisdom which cuts through ignorance. The prayer flags are never taken down.Scarlet Minivet on the road to Ura, Bhutan The wind eventually erodes it to nothing. This signifies the impermanence of everything, even memory. That’s a lot of meaning to pack into a little cultural artifact.

We passed by, and soon reached higher ground with lots of conifers lining the road. Dinesh, who was driving, had initially been very sceptical about bird watching, but now he began to point out birds. My camera had a 10X optical zoom, which today sounds like a toy, but was a wonder then. A farmer's hut in Ura, Bhutan In the photo above you see a Scarlet Minivet, which, along with Verditer Flycatchers, were The Family’s favourite birds at that time.

I have a distinct memory of the farmer’s hut in the photo here, and of being able to spot and identify a Grey-backed Shrike for the first time. Memory being terribly fallible,View of a pine forest near Ura, Bhutan it reassures me that I have a photo of the bird with a time stamp seconds after the photo of the hut.

I remember this morning’s drive as a calm and unhurried time. We stopped once when Dinesh spotted a bird which turned out to be the bright yellow female of the Scarlet Minivet. The sun was warm and the air was cool. We seemed to be the only travellers on this route at around noon. The mixed pine forest around us was full of birds.

View of Ura valley, Bhutan

Soon after this the view opened up to a lovely sun-dappled valley. We had arrived within sight of Ura. This was to be furthest east we travelled in Bhutan.