Archive for August 2018

Vietnam part 2: Bao Loc to Phong Nha: 10th – 23rd March 2018   2 comments

This post is the second about my tour to Vietnam. As usual I travelled with Birdquest, my 74th trip with this company. The 25 day (27 with travel to and from included) covered much of the country.

The first post just covered Cat Tien NP, this post covers the central part of Vietnam from Bao Loc to Phong Nha Khe Bang and the final post will detail our travels in the north.


Map courtesy of the Birdquest website. See for details of this tour and more photos.


Like at Cat Tien a fair bit of our time was spent in makeshift hides. This one at Do Lui San was set up to see Blue Pitta. Unfortunately it was heard but not seen. Here local leader Quang is replenishing the mealworm bait.


Our primatologist friend Lucy and Birdquest leader Craig Robson seemed capable of remaining motionless for ages but after about 10 minutes my knees would be killing me and I’d have to move around a bit.


No luck with the Blue Pitta, but stunning views of another Orange-headed Ground Thrush, this time a male.


Nearby we had great views of a Collared Owlet.


Later that day we visited an area of native pine forest on the Da Lat plateau. Our targets were the endemic Vietnamese Greenfinch …


… and ‘Vietnamese’ Crossbill. Although an endemic race, this distinctive form, which seems to have a bigger bill than even Parrot Crossbill, is still lumped in Common (or Red) Crossbill. Massively disjunct from other crossbill forms and with a distinctive morphology, it surely more deserving of specific status than our Scottish Crossbill or even the recently split Cassia Crossbill of Idaho.


We spent three nights at the town of Da Lat which has some impressive modern architecture in its centre.


Again we spent time in hides in the forest of the Da Lat plateau. Here the group reconvene on the pathway after a long session of sitting still.


However the rewards for all that discomfort were really great. A White-tailed Robin …


… Large Niltava …


… Snowy-browed Flycatcher …


… and the tiny Pygmy Cupwing. Until recently called Pygmy Wren-babbler, this and three other congeners have been shown to be unrelated to other wren-babblers and so have gained this rather cute moniker.


But our main target was the beautiful Collared Laughingthrush.


Just one of 17 species of laughingthrush we saw on the tour, Collared Laughingthrush is endemic to the South Annam area of Vietnam.


We also visited a rather unusual ornamental park at Ta Nung Valley Resort. Here Craig uses this unusual platform to search for bird flocks.


Our main target was the South Annam endemic Grey-crowned Crocias.


Also seen in the area was Vietnamese Cutia, a split from the more widespread Himalayan Cutia …


… and Kloss’ Leaf Warbler. This species was formerly lumped in White-tailed Leaf Warbler but has, like so many other members of the genus Phylloscopus, been recent split. In fact the leaf warbler genus has increased from something like 50 members to 77 as a result of taxonomic investigations, making it one of the largest genus in the avian world and the family Phylloscopidae the only large family to be composed of a single genus.


There are many confusing species of bulbul in South-east Asia, and this, Flavescent Bulbul is one of them.


Away from the forest we visited this large lake …


… more open country birds like White-throated Kingfisher …


… another Flavescent Bulbul …


… and Grey Bushchat in the process.


We also saw Necklaced Barbet (formerly lumped in Golden-throated Barbet) found only in SE Laos and south Vietnam.


Our final location in the Da Lat area was on a hillside above the local cemetery.


Here in rank grassland after a bit of scrambling and bush bashing we caught up with the elusive and seldom seen Da Lat Bush Warbler. Now in the genus Locustella, I suppose it should be renamed Da Lat Grasshopper Warbler.


On our way north we paid a brief visit to the picturesque Lek Lake.


We saw a few typical asian waterbirds like Chinese Pond Heron …


… but when I casually mentioned to Craig that I’d seen a male Pintail (somewhere near the far shore of this photo) he didn’t believe until he’d had a look down the scope himself, as this duck, a familiar winter visitor in the UK, had not been recorded in Central Annam before!.


We arrived at our hotel at Mang Den rather later in the day after over ten hours of driving.


We visited a number of sites in the Mang Den area but by far the most memorable was near Ngoc Linh.


Only Lucy, Adrian, Leonardo and I joined Craig on the hike which was on narrow, steep and muddy trails.


It took several hours to get there but we were eventually rewarded with views of the Critically Endangered Golden-winged Laughingthrush. Only described in 1999 it is only known from this tiny area and so is in immediate danger of extinction. It has been seen by just a handful of birders and indeed was a lifer for Craig, an acknowledged expert on Vietnamese birds. Unfortunately I didn’t get a photo, this one is by Nguyen Minh Tuan: see


Another restricted range babbler, although easier to see was Spectacled Barwing which was quite common along the road.


Another highlight of the Mang Den area was the critically endangered Grey-shanked Douc Langur of which as few as 500 individuals may remain.


Our long journey north continued. I was impressed with the ornamental borders, arches and general tidiness of the Vietnamese towns.


Most of our accommodation was good, a few were below par but the Lang Co Beach Resort was superb. Unfortunately the sunny weather that had accompanied us since the start had gone and we found ourselves in thick fog.


The hotel grounds had been touted as the place to see Siberian migrants on their way north and the adjacent beach as the place to see interesting waders but it was not to be and after a couple of hours of birding we gave it up as a bad job.


We headed up the mountain to BAch Ma NP where our accommodation was far less salubrious but the weather was better.


It was nice to see this female Blue Rock Thrush perching on the crumbling accommodation building. The last time I saw this species was also on a building, in a housing estate in Stow-on-the-Wold in the Cotswolds in December 2016. Buildings seem a perfectly practical substitute for the rocky ledges where they usually feed and I see no reason why some birders dissed the Cotswolds’ record (other than the fact that they had already seen the species in the UK on Scilly and hated being gripped back).


There have been claims that the eastern Blue Rock Thrush races (including both red-bellied and blue bellied forms) should be treated as a separate species but this has not been followed, at least not by the IOC.


Other good birds in the area included the pretty Silver-eared Mesia (another babbler) …


… the charming Chestnut-headed Bee-eater…


… and male migrant Narcissus Flycatcher on route to its breeding grounds in Japan, Sakhalin or Ussuriland.


Barbets, non-passerines distantly related to woodpeckers, are prominent members of the South-east Asian avifauna but are more often heard than seen. Here are three species: Moustached Barbet which can be found over much of Indochina …


… Green-eared Barbet which like the former species is widespread, although less conspicuous …


… and the near endemic Necklaced Barbet which we also encountered earlier in this post.


The weather had been good during our stay at Bach Ma …


… but the next day low cloud we had seen on the coast caught up with us and it started to rain. In fact much of the next week would be plagued by low cloud and fog. It didn’t affect the birding much but certainly spoilt the views. We cut our losses at Bach Ma and headed to Phong Na Khe-Bang NP.


There is always plenty to see on Vietnam’s roads from motorbikes with loads three times as wide as they are to women working in paddyfields wearing traditional ‘coolie’ hats.


Phong Na Khe-Bang’s beautifully sculptured limestone hills are on the itinerary of most tourists to Vietnam.


Although it remained dry the low cloud certainly spoilt the view.


One of the key birds at Phong Na Khe-Bang was Sooty Babbler. No photographs were obtained so here is one by James Eaton of Birdtour Asia


Another speciality of this karst habitat of northern Indochina is Limestone Leaf Warbler, another Phylloscopus. This photo was taken by Nguyen Hao Quang


Easier to photograph was this charming Asian Emerald Cuckoo.


We spent a lot of time in the park walking along the road. Parts of the area had previously been deforested and the remaining vegetation was covered with an invasive creeper. However we saw some good birds ranging from a pair of distant Brown Hornbills to groups of Cook’s Swifts overhead.


However only the widespread Crested Serpent Eagle was photographed.


To many when Vietnam is mentioned their thoughts turn not to the green verdant land of today but to the civil war fought in the sixties and early seventies which resulted in major involvement of the USA and others. As we approached the former North Vietnam there were more reminders of that war. Circular ponds in the rice fields were the result of carpet bombing by the Americans …


… and here a shrine to a group of youth workers who took shelter in a cave during an American bombing raid and were entombed and died by the resultant rockfall.


I’ll conclude this post with another of SE Asia’s avian gems -a Silver-breasted Broadbill photographed at Phong Na Khe-Bang.





The final locations of Cuc Phuong, Tam Dao and Sa Pa/Fansipar will be shown in the next post.


























Vietnam part 1: Cat Tien National Park: 7th – 10th March 2018   Leave a comment

After a protracted absence I now hope to catch up with reports on my two most recent foreign trips: Vietnam in March and Mongolia in May 2017.

Although I have visited Thailand twice and also birded in China, north-eastern India, Cambodia and Malaysia, Vietnam still offered a very tempting selection of Oriental goodies. Over the course of 23 days I recorded an amazing 414 species (including 47 life birds). There were some excellent mammals as well including some very rare primates and my first ever pangolin.


Getting there was not without its problems. A long delay due to technical problems at Heathrow meant that it looked like I would miss my connection to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) at Bangkok. On arrival those passengers flying on to Vietnam were met on the gangway taken down steps and driven across the apron to our waiting plane without even entering the airport. So it was a great relief when we landed at Saigon on time. However predictably my luggage didn’t make it. It was quite difficult to explain to the very polite lady on the Thai Airlines desk that I was going onto Cat Tien National Park and not some Saigon hotel but fortunately I was able to contact leader Craig Robson who came to my rescue. I was reunited with my luggage the following evening. The photo shows the plane descending over the many channels of the Mekong Delta.


Here we are from the vehicle crossing the Mekong.


Right from the outset at Cat Tien we saw top quality birds like this Green Peacock. This magnificent male was feeding close to the road. We saw about 12 during our stay. This was only the second trip I’ve been on where the species was recorded.


Unlike it’s relative Indian or Blue Peafowl, this species is endangered with a population of just 10-20,00 birds spread over SE Asia, South China and Java. Still hunted for its feathers it has never been semi-domesticated like its Indian cousin.


Bird photography has become big business in SE Asia with many bated hides available. These are not the permanent sort of wooden hides you might find on reserves in Europe but netting with small holes to photograph or observe through and you often have to either squat down or carry a stool with you to sit on. One of first observations wasn’t a bird but a mammal, the cute Cambodian Ground Squirrel.


There were a variety of small birds feeding in the clearing in front of the hide – Puff-throated Babblers and …


… Buff-throated Babblers showed very well.


Smart Siberian Blue Robins here for the winter from their breeding grounds in Siberia and Japan were a real treat …


… and were seen alongside resident Magpie Robins.


Magpie Robins are common but quite shy throughout SE Asia.


Several races of Orange-headed Thrush occur, some migratory others resident differing among other features in their facial marking. The brown hue of the mantle indicates that this is a female.


The long-tailed White-rumped Shama was a delight to see …


… although currently classified as ‘least concern’ populations of this species along with many others in SE Asia are dropping rapidly due to trapping for the cage bird trade.


It’s seldom that you get such stunning views of a pheasant in Asia, this Germain’s Peacock-pheasant performed admirably.


The gorgeous endemic Bar-bellied Pitta was perhaps the star of the show. This endemic pitta is only found in Vietnamese lowland forest but thanks to these feeding stations is quite easy to see.


The endemic Blue-rumped Pitta is quite understated by pitta standards, but it was lovely to watch a pair of these mega-elusive birds feeding in the open.


The 32 species of pitta, an exclusively Old World family) not to be confused with the New World antpittas) are some of the most elusive yet beautiful birds in the world.


There is a big problem in SE Asia with primates being poached for the pet trade. The cage contains Red-cheeked Gibbons that have been confiscated by authorities and are being rehabilitated for release back into the reserve. Wild gibbons attracted by the sight of these caged individuals come to investigate. The black individual is the male.


Other primates included Crab-eating Macaque …


… but far rarer and most unexpected was this endangered Black-shanked Douc Langur. Only about 600 individuals may remain in Vietnam, although maybe more in Cambodia. we had a young lady who was a primatologist on the trip and she was absolutely delighted to see this species.


A pair of habituated Great Hornbills were often seen hanging round the restaurant area. Tragically one morning one of the pair was found dead, entrapped in electrical cables near the HQ.


In the opposite direction the road led into taller, more mature forest.


Species included the charming Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher …


… the bizarre Dusky Broadbill …


… and its cousin the stunning Black-and-Red Broadbill.


There are 15 species of broadbill, three in Africa, the rest in Asia. I have seen all but three (two in Philippines and one in Borneo) however I have no plans to go back to either of these localities so I doubt if I’ll ever complete the family.


From the HQ and accommodation a drivable track runs in both directions. In this direction the forest is more open and eventually leads to dry paddyfields outside the park.


Birds in this area included Orange-breasted Green Pigeon …


… Violet Cuckoo …


… and an elusive Banded Kingfisher.


Wintering birds from Siberian included this Asian Brown Flycatcher.


The large and endemic Red-vented Barbet was high on my wish list.


Non avian species included this striking Neon-blue Dragon.


Eventually we reached some dry paddyfields where we searched for a few open country birds.


In the trees there were a small flock of the scarce and appropriately named Plain-backed Sparrows.


Red-wattled Lapwings and ….


… Oriental Pratincoles were amongst our targets.


Dry country passerines included Indochinese Bush Lark ….


… and Paddyfield Pipit. This species is largely resident, however we also saw its close relative, the migratory Richard’s Pipit which winters in SE Asia from its Siberian breeding ground. These two species are very similar although the larger Richard’s can be distinguished when they are side by side.


We did several night drives and saw a range of mammals including this Red Muntjac …


… and Common Palm Civet.


But the best mammal sighting, indeed one of the best mammal sightings of all time, was this Sunda Pangolin that was found near our accommodation. Here photographed by the light of the leader’s torch and by flash below.


Pangolins are the most traded wild animals in the world. For reasons completely beyond my understanding, the scales (made of keratin, the same stuff as your fingernails) is considered of value in traditional oriental medicine. Millions of these charming and harmless animals are killed every year, this amounts to about 20% of the entire global wildlife trade. No wonder its taken me 35 years to see one.


After three nights at Cat Tien it was time to catch the ferry across the river and meet up with our vehicles.


But let’s end with a photo of one of the most striking bird of Cat Tien’s forest … Great Hornbill.