Bhutan 2013 : White-bellied Heron (2)

Above the ancient capital Punakha flows the Pho Chhu river, which upper course is home to a pair of the critically endangered White-bellied Heron. This beautiful bird, almost as large as a Goliath Heron, has seen its mid-elevation forested riverine habitat much reduced throughout its east-Himalayan distribution range, disappearing from Nepal and much of North-east India, and Bhutan is seen as the last stronghold for the bird. Alas, despite its widely advertised commitment for nature conservation and biodiversity, the Kingdom offers no safe heaven either : a recent construction boom brings more and more disturbance to rivers from gravel extraction sites, and a large scale hydro-electricity development program over the next decade is bound to flood much of the remaining habitat.

When i visited the site on my way to the east i had only an afternoon and a morning in hand to look for the bird. The first attempt proved unsuccessful, so it is with much relief that i spotted a bird feeding in the middle of the river just after dawn. Keeping a safe distance of 200 meters i was able to observe it fishing for almost an hour before a local walked to the river bank and flushed the heron upstream. The heron was not the only bird of interest : on the river island nearby a pair of Ibisbill was noisily calling, in an apparent dispute with a pair of River Lapwings… Prime property such as a river island, protected from human disturbance and marauding dogs, is much sought after by riverine birds, and dispute frequently arise between breeding pairs, sometimes with dramatic consequences : last year i witnessed a River Lapwing attacking and slaughtering an Ibisbill chick… The White-Bellied Heron should not be part of such skirmishes since it builds its nest on Chir Pine trees, but as a nervous Ibisbill flew by the heron it triggered an aggressive response, that i was lucky to capture with the camera.

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