2013 Tour Narrative
In Brief: Vietnam has more endemics than any other country in South East Asia. A cursory glance at a map of the region will show that Vietnam is an unusual country – long, thin and roughly shaped like an hourglass. Balanced on the edge of the Southeast Asian continent the country lies on a north-south axis and covers a huge latitudinal range. In the north one’s eye is drawn to the Red River Delta, while in the south the huge Mekong Delta dominates the map. Both of these very important topographic features figure prominently in the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people. In Vietnam’s far north-west lies the Hoang Lien Son Range, the south-easternmost extension of the Himalayas; the very thin central part of the country is traced by the Truong Son Range; while further south the Da Lat Plateau divides south and central Vietnam. This topography and Vietnam’s location on the edge of the mainland contributes to a complex climatic system. This all helps to explain Vietnam’s extraordinary biological diversity. Vietnam is in the top 25 countries of species richness and that diversity peaks for groups whose richness peaks in Southeast Asia. For example, two thirds of mainland Asia’s babblers are found in Vietnam. Vietnam also has a high rate of endemism with seven species of primate (and seven more restricted range species) and five species of babbler (seven more restricted range).
In Detail: Our tour can roughly be divided into three parts – the south, central Vietnam and the north. Our first destination was Cat Tien National Park, not far north of the dynamic city of Saigon where we find an oasis of green forests and abundant wildlife. From there we head north, still in south Vietnam to the Da Lat Plateau home to such a diversity of restricted range species that it has been designated an Endemic Bird Area by Birdlife International. Continuing north we visited a series of reserves, each with their own distinct set of species and habitats. Lastly, we birded the northern hill and montane forests, again all with different aims and distinctive characteristics.
There were many highpoints throughout our tour and it would be hard to say any particular experience was better than any. Collectively though, I think the pheasants and pittas left the most lasting impressions as did perhaps the memorable mammals we encountered – the superb monkeys, persistent porcupines and cute squirrels. And then there were some amazing reptiles and a butterfly show that had to be seen to be believed!
The First Destination
We left our hotel after enjoying the fabulous buffet breakfast at our comfortable hotel in Saigon. The drive through this busy and overcrowded but fascinating city is necessarily rather longer than we’d ideally like but nevertheless a chance to observe life in everyday South Vietnam – one of the most energetic places one might ever experience. Even so we were glad to reach our destination, the wonderful Cat Tien National Park. This reserve protects a large area of evergreen tropical rainforest with a very rich assembly of fauna including over 300 species of bird. We had three full days to explore the area and we never had a dull moment! On our first afternoon walk we were delighted to find and watch at length a gorgeous pair of Heart-spotted Woodpeckers, not to mention a very neat low-flying Besra. The next day was to be truly memorable – the best I have ever experienced in many years of leading tours in Cat Tien. We drove up to the Heavens Rapids Road where we spent the morning birding along the narrow road. There were so many highlights I can only mention a few – it was a bit of a banded morning, with Banded Kingfisher, Banded Broadbill and Banded Bay Cuckoo. We also had great looks at the beautiful Orange-breasted Trogon, a bizarre Blue-bearded Bee-eater, endemic Red-vented Barbets, wide-mouthed Dusky Broadbills and seven species of woodpecker. The afternoon was spent searching – successfully – for Green Peafowls in the open areas south of the headquarters. Non-stop action!
The next days were spent on the trails where we had close encounters with some amazing birds including splendiferous Siamese Firebacks, Scaly-breasted Partridges, endemic Germain’s Peacock Pheasants (in the scope no less!), and point blank views of Blue-rumped and Bar-bellied Pittas – too close for binoculars.
From Cat Tien we headed further north to the hill resort town of Da Lat, where we had more excellent birding and a respite from the hot weather in the lowlands. The birding here is quite a bit more challenging than in the national park as there are no reserves and a great deal of pressure from an ever increasing human population. Nevertheless, this is a very important area for a number of endemics and we searched hard to find them. We were also working with a difficult season – the dry season arrived at least six weeks late this year and consequently conditions were less than ideal. Our hard work over two days paid off though with outstanding looks at the enigmatic Grey-crowned Crocias as well as Slender-billed Orioles, Vietnamese Crossbills, Da Lat Shrike-Babbler, and White-cheeked Laughingthrushes. The hoped for Collared Laughingthrushes eluded us though; sadly they weren’t even heard.
After our pleasant stay on the Da Lat Plateau we turned our attention northwards again and made tracks for the Cambodian border where Yok Don National Park is located. The forests here are different to anywhere else we visited on this tour: dry, open woodlands and consequently a totally different set of birds. Our main targets here were the restricted range near-endemic Mekong Wagtail and the superb Black-headed Woodpecker, surely one of the world’s most beautiful woodpeckers. We found these birds and many more, standouts of which were Rufous Treepie, Rufous Woodpecker, Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrush and Purple Sunbird.
Our next stop was back to the cool forests, this time in the central highlands to the lost hill resort of Mang Den. A short distance out of town and we were searching for the recently described and very beautiful Chestnut-eared Laughingthrush. This consummate skulker is clearly not that uncommon where it’s found but seeing it is another matter! With patience though we were all rewarded with outstanding, albeit brief, views of this memorable bird. There were many other standouts though, of these the endemic Yellow-billed Nuthatch, a displaying Jerdon’s Baza, a gem-like Asian Emerald Cuckoo, preening Black-hooded Laughingthrushes and a stunning Blue Pitta made the most lasting impressions.
Next we made our way to Bach Ma National Park in the hills near the old capital of Hue. The weather continued to be almost too perfect but we couldn’t complain. We found some fantastic birds in the beautiful forests as we birded along the roadside in the cool air and bright sunshine. Possibly our most exciting find wasn’t a bird though – a small troop of gorgeously colorful Red-shanked Douc Langurs, a very rare endemic monkey, allowed us to admire them at close range. Chestnut-collared Yuhinas were cheerfully abundant and Ratchet-tailed Treepie put on a good show. Another hoped for bird – the endemic subspecies of Sultan Tit, with its all black crown also showed well.
Our last stop on the main tour was the scenically outstanding Phong Nha National Park, further north and near the border with Laos. Our main target here, the recently described Sooty Babbler, showed superbly and everyone was super happy. The main part of our journey concluded as we made our way north to Hanoi for those heading home or continuing on the northern extension for more birding adventures.
After a short break to enjoy a culinary change of pace in Hanoi (steaks and hamburgers mostly) we made the short trip to Cuc Phuong National Park, Vietnam’s oldest. After a slow start this year’s visit to these lovely forests turned out to be one of my best ever. On our first full day we found all our most hoped for birds and as a special treat enjoyed a marvellous butterfly show with over twenty species seen, many feeding at puddles en masse. Soon after finding a baby King Cobra feeding on a blue-tailed skink we managed to entice in a pair of fussing Limestone Wren-Babblers. Later a small flock of the increasingly rare White-winged Magpie put on a great show for us. Endemic Rufous-throated Fulvettas put up a bit of resistance but eventually showed well. Another morning we headed out of the park a short way to a nearby nature reserve where we wanted to look for some birds but more particularly for the very glamorous and rare Delacour’s Langur. Beginning with the birding, we found some outstanding critters including a personal favorite, Wryneck, which seemed to be nesting. Something of a rarity for Vietnam, we spied a Chestnut-eared Bunting. Setting out on the Van Long wetlands we soon found out hoped for primate rarities, the handsome black and white Delacour’s in their little white shorts. Back at Cuc Phuong we were overjoyed to find a stunning Silver Pheasant, increasingly rare here. Later along the roadside in the late afternoon a little puddle attended by a remarkable array of birds included Orange-headed Thrush, White-browed Bush Robin, Fujian Niltavas, and Rufous-tailed Robins, to name but a few.
An overnight trip to Ba Vi National Park near Hanoi was sadly less successful with roadworks and temple visitors creating too much disturbance for us to have a chance to find shy laughingthrushes. That said Great Barbet provided some compensation. So we headed north again to the hills of Tam Dao. This notoriously difficult site put on an unusually great show for us though and we were thrilled to find almost all our targets. The elusive Grey Laughingthrush turned up on cue and later we found splendid little Short-tailed Parrotbills. A great way to finish our adventures in Vietnam! Reluctantly we said goodbye to the birds and headed back to Hanoi for our onward flights. Susan Meyers
Updated: March 2012