Wildlife: The white-bellied heron (Ardea insignis) was sighted for the first time in eastern Bhutan from Jamkhardrang in Trashiyangtse on April 18.

A lone white-bellied heron was spotted in the Drangmechhu around 100 metres from Gomkora Lhakhang. “The white-bellied heron was spotted at Jamkhardrang,” Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment (UWICE) research assistant, Karma Wangdi said.

The second batch of nature guides and ecotourism trainees with their coordinators, UWICE forester Tsethup Tshering and Karma Wangdi spotted the bird while on a field trip to study plants, mammals, birds and butterflies. Although ornithologists predicted the existence of the white-bellied heron in rivers of Trashigang and Trashiyangtse before, no physical evidence was recorded until now.

The bird, which was photographed perched on a rock in the middle of the Drangmechhu, was emailed to Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN) and an ornithologist of UWICE Sherub. They have both confirmed the bird in the photograph as a white-bellied heron.

Sherub, speaking to Kuensel on social media from Germany, said that in the past there have been reports of some people seeing the white-bellied heron in Sherichhu.

“But could not confirm its presence in the past as RSPN despite scouring the Sherichhu area a number of times failed to spot the bird,” Sherub said.

The ornithologist also said although the news of sighting the bird in the east is exciting, it is however, no surprise.

“What is important to realise is that an increasing number of people are now watching the birds. When we have more people watching the birds, the possibility to detect any organism is higher,” Sherub said.

Senior ecologist Rebecca Pradhan said although RSPN is yet to get the field data, she has seen the photographs of white-bellied heron from the field.

“The bird in the picture emailed to me was definitely a white-bellied heron and I am so happy about it,” Rebecca Pradhan said. “I would now like to see it nesting in the areas.”

Karma Wangdi said that the team confirmed the bird on sight as a white-bellied heron through comparisons to other herons from the book, “Birds of Bhutan” by Carol and Tim Inskipp and Richard Grimmett. “We came to know that it’s a white-bellied heron because of its white under parts, which other herons do not have,” Karma Wangdi said.

Rebecca Pradhan also said the white-bellied heron has never been recorded in the east despite making several trips spanning 10 years.

“White-bellied heron is recorded in eastern Bhutan for the first time,” she said.

Till now the heron has been recorded only in the central and south west parts of the country. The white-bellied heron as of now has been documented only in Punakha, Wangdue, Tsirang, Dagana, Zhemgang and Samtse as per the RSPN website. Of these habitats, Hara Rongchhu has the highest population of five white-bellied heron. Phochhu has four.

Burichhu and Phibsoo Wildlife Santuary have three each while the remaining habitats like Tingtibe, Ada, Waklaytar and Dagachhu have two white-bellied heron each. It is however unknown if there are more white-bellied heron in Gomkora.

The team also couldn’t tell if the lone white-bellied heron had migrated from another part of the country. “It is unconfirmed if the white-bellied heron is a vagrant or a resident there,” Rebecca Pradhan said.

Sherub said that there are still possibilities of finding white-bellied heron in other parts of the east. “Any fast flowing rivers having lots of fish, it is likely that heron and species related to it can be found,” Sherub said.

With an estimated global population of less than 60 and decreasing, the white-bellied heron is considered critically endangered as per the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Trashiyangtse is also home to the endemic national butterfly, Ludlow’s Bhutan Swallowtail and rare butterfly, Bhutan Treebrown. Bhutan is home to 28 white-bellied herons, the highest in the world.

Tempa Wangdi