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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Myanmar

2016 Narrative

After spending our first afternoon sightseeing around the spectacular Shwedagon Pagoda in downtown Yangon our Burmese guide, Gideon, took us to Hlawga Park on the edge of the city early the following morning. This isolated enclave yielded our first water birds with particularly impressive numbers of Asian Openbills and Indian Spot-billed Ducks, our first Crested Honey Buzzards, Crested Serpent Eagles and Black-winged Cuckooshrike. We encountered a party of ever elusive Chestnut-capped Babblers while other goodies included an Ashy-headed Green Pigeon, eight Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters, four Rosy Minivets and several beautiful Scarlet-backed Flowerpeckers.

Later that afternoon we had our first internal flight (actually two flights) as we headed up to Bagan via Heho. Our time in the Dry Zone around the spectacular ancient city of Bagan, itself a World Heritage site, was superb. Four of Myanmar’s six endemic birds awaited and all four of them performed brilliantly. White-throated Babbler was the first (some of us would see these even in the hotel grounds), the common Jerdon’s Bushlark the second and the stunningly attractive Jerdon’s Minivet the third. Only the fourth, Hooded Treepie, took more effort – but the views that we eventually had (at one of Gideon’s multiple back-up sites) were well worth the wait! We also had brilliant looks at a Laggar Falcon, umpteen Vinous-breasted Starlings, the soon-to-be-split xanthocyclus Myanmar endemic form of Eurasian Collared Dove, Plain-backed Sparrows galore, Brown Prinia and Burmese Shrike. Oh and then there was the gong banging entertainment during our first Bagan lunch.

With three nights and two full days at Bagan we also found time to have a cruise on the Irrawaddy River (once referred to as ‘the road to Mandalay’) – a journey that produced fabulous encounters with three Pied Harriers – two of which were stunning males, an adult Bonelli’s Eagle, some superbly cooperative White-tailed Stonechats and a lone Striated Babbler. Elsewhere around Bagan we also saw three Plaintive Cuckoos, several Wrynecks, a secretive Yellow-crowned Woodpecker, Thick -billed Warblers that we got a couple of bites at, and some eventually obliging Siberian Rubythroats. Despite being busy we even found time to enjoy a sunset over a few of Bagan’s enchanting pagodas.

Mount Victoria was our next destination and our fleet of four-wheel drive vehicles transported us there in the style that we were already becoming accustomed to. We scored on route with a quickly spotted pair of White-rumped Falcons (a species that we’d see even better when we drove back to Bagan five days later), five species of parakeet including 20 Grey-headed and no less than four inquisitive Burmese (or Neglected) Nuthatches. Other goodies included eight Crested Treeswifts, two distant Brown-backed Needletails, a brilliant White-belied Woodpecker and a whole host of flowerpeckers.

Mount Victoria was just as good as we’d dreamt it would be. The fabulous oak and rhododendron forests of the mountain’s higher elevations held our two remaining endemics - the poorly known Burmese Bushtit performed well but it was what’s arguably Myanmar’s most sought after avian jewel, the rare and very local White-browed Nuthatch, that really stole the show! Both proved much easier to see than we’d ever dared hope and, satiated with these, we could move on in search of the mountain’s other avian prizes. Day one on the mountain also produced our only Black Eagle of the tour – a superb individual that cruised effortlessly overhead, no less than 13 Ashy Woodpigeons, more Rufous-bellied Woodpeckers than you could shake a stick at, three Black-bibbed Tits, two superbly obliging Chin Hills Wren Babblers, both Brown-capped and Assam Laughingthrushes and a pair of Streak-throated Barwings. We’d had a fantastic first day on the mountain – and one that set us up for a brilliantly bird-rich visit. What was arguably the highlight of the day however was a fantastic after-dark encounter with a Hodgson’s Frogmouth. Once spotted it sat, and sat and sat allowing us all prolonged telescope views! Brilliant! 

Despite strong winds and even lower temperatures our second full day on Mount Victoria was fun and rewarding. Two secretive Wedge-tailed Green Pigeons shared a roadside tree alongside our first Red-tailed Minlas, while a Green Shrike-babbler shared a different tree with a couple of its Black-eared cousins. Elsewhere we found a party of three inquisitive Himalayan Cutias, a pair of Spot-breasted Parrotbills while two close range Grey-chinned Minivets brightened things up still more…Today was the day we all also saw our first Grey-sided Thrushes, while a Grey-winged Blackbird was a write-in on our lists (as White-collared had been the previous evening).

By the time of our third day on Mount Victoria we were fully able to focus in on key species that we were missing. The near endemic Mount Victoria Babax fell at what was almost the first hurdle – though somewhat disconcertingly it clearly responded better to playback of Chinese Babax than it did to that of its own species! Minutes after soaking up the Babax we were watching a pair of Black-headed Shrike Babblers and shortly after that our first Bay Woodpecker and Mrs Gould’s Sunbirds. Clearly on a roll we found five, yes five, Stripe-breasted Woodpeckers and a pair of Striped Laughingthrushes near our hotel as well as a Large Hawk Cuckoo, a small party of Asian House Martins, two gorgeous Black-throated Tits and our first Red-faced Liocichlas just below.

Our fourth and final full day on Mount Victoria started with fabulous looks at a posing Vivid Niltava and a fantastic Collared Owlet while we went on to encounter two Crimson-breasted Woodpeckers, two rather recalcitrant Blue-winged Laughingthrushes, a Spotted Forktail that was clearly just as surprised to see us as we were it and two well spotted Spot-winged Grosbeak. It wasn’t all plain sailing however as the singing Spotted Elachura that some of us glimpsed firmly refused to give itself up to the rest of us!

Our picnics in the field had been great – and the meals and service back at our lodge thoroughly impressive but all too soon it was time to leave Mount Victoria and head back to the plains and heat of Bagan. A rather too elusive Pale-headed Woodpecker entertained, or rather teased, us for a while on our way back but our other stops, with further encounters with White-rumped Falcon, White-bellied Woodpecker and Grey-headed Parakeet were more rewarding.

Moving on from Bagan our next port of call was Inle, Myanmar’s second largest lake, and we’d no sooner checked in to our hotel than we were back out again – this time taking a lengthy boat ride. The leg rowers and fishermen were out in force but, fascinating though they were, it wasn’t them that we’d come to see – no for that matter was it the Ferruginous Ducks, the close range colony of Asian Openbills, the Glossy Ibis or the harriers. Our quarries were quality rarities in the forms of Jerdon’s Bush Chat, Collared Myna and Chinese Grassbird. The latter took a deal of effort, and a second boat ride the following morning, and even then none of us managed to actually see the grassbird and had to make do with only hearing it. Even so Inle and not least our spectacular, palatial hotel was fabulous and we even managed another write-in (Chestnut-eared Bunting) on our already burgeoning list.

The hill station of Kalaw was our final destination and we had a full day and a half there. Things started well as we were treated to great looks at a Collared Falconet minutes after we’d disembarked from our minibuses on our first afternoon. Other species we saw well that afternoon included several Black-headed Greenfinches, a Green-billed Malkoha and four Spectacled Barwings. After a superb evening meal in our hotel we headed out for our final day’s birding in Myanmar. Gideon’s site produced decent looks, eventually, at Dark-backed Sibia, a Black-tailed Crake, a Speckled Piculet and equally enthralling encounters with Eurasian Jay of the distinctive leucotis subspecies, a male Red-headed Trogon, five Silver-breasted Bulbuls, several White-browed Scimitar-babblers, a pair of Scarlet-faced Liocichlas, a White-tailed Robin, a Sapphire Flycatcher and a couple of fine male Chestnut Buntings.

Sadly, we never did connect with the singing Spot-throated Babbler that we tried so hard to see and never had even the faintest sniff of Burmese Yuhina one of our primary targets around Kalaw – the latter simply proving too elusive.

I think that it’s safe to say that Myanmar exceeded our expectations and we were blessed with gorgeous weather throughout. Myanmar with its rich heritage, friendly, inviting people and diverse culture, had proved to have been a truly fascinating and massively rewarding country to visit.

I wrote the following two paragraphs at that the end of last year’s tour report and both remain true to this day ‘Recent political reform has finally opened Myanmar’s doors and what still is, both culturally and ornithologically, a desperately poorly known country certainly won’t remain that way for much longer. The largest and ornithologically most diverse country in Southeast Asia, it’s blessed with a series of endemics and other specialities. Myanmar is a fascinating destination in so many ways and we were enthralled by our modest insights into its unique culture and heritage. It’s difficult to single out just one highlight from what was a great tour – we simply explored so many radically different areas from the higher elevation, rich forests on the peaks of Mount Victoria, to the open savannah type terrain of the Irrawaddy Plain and the historic capital at Yangon (formerly Rangoon). For many of us however our visit to Bagan, one of the nation’s richest historic sites, was the undoubted highlight.

To this day very few birders have visited this exciting country – and we were lucky that we can now count ourselves among the vanguard. The previously introspective military government are hopefully a thing of the past and the flood gates now open. Burma, as it was once known, has massive potential once again.

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