The Forests of Bhutan: Fresh But Familiar

Posted: September 26, 2016

The students of the SFS Program on Himalayan Studies, along with some staff, all set out for a hike last weekend. Together, we worked our way up through steep pine forest, and then into a large hemlock grove. Later, the hemlock trees gave way to a mix of spruce and fir. At first brush, this scene could have taken place in the northeastern United States, or perhaps in the Pacific Northwest. The trees that comprise Bhutan’s coniferous forests are familiar to me, having close relatives throughout the cooler parts of the northern hemisphere. However, in the Himalayas they shadow an unfamiliar understory of rhododendrons, dwarf bamboo, and more varieties of mushrooms than I can recollect.

The flocks of birds that meander through these forests are impressive in their volume. Some have fifty or sixty individuals. Or maybe their numbers are double that— it’s tough to count. Some of these birds have familiar names, like warblers and finches. But others have names that are new to us, like minivets, bulbuls, fulvettas, minlas. This diversity is a consequence of overlapping tropical and temperate conditions along the Himalayan elevational gradient. The warblers and finches are part of temperate groups that take advantage of cooler conditions high in the mountains. The minivets, bulbuls, fulvettas, and minlas are of tropical origin, but have adapted to mountain life unlike their lowland relatives. Soon, many will descend out of Bumthang to spend their winter in the subtropical foothills.

We continued our hike as the sky darkened, some fog rolled in, and thunder rumbled in the distance. A re-emergence of the late-season monsoons rains found their way up the Bumthang Valley. Suddenly, the sky opened up and the thunder rumbled closer, shortening our excursion and causing a slippery and muddy descent back to the station. Here in September, these seasonal weather systems show some signs of abating, yet they won’t seem to outright quit. I’m glad I have plenty of dry socks.

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