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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Vietnam

2016 Narrative

We’ve just finished our Vietnam tour and the birding was great! This country is so varied and interesting. Every place we visited was very different. The birding can be challenging but was always very rewarding.

This year we did something different – we started our tour in the north, flying into Hanoi then kicking off our birding in Cuc Phuong National Park. Cuc Phuong is Vietnam’s oldest national park, having been declared in 1962, and is also the largest and one of the most biodiverse. We spent our time here birding along the road, sometimes from the car in the early morning and sometimes on the trails. Setting out just before sunrise is a great way to see thrushes, pittas and other neat birds. And this year we had great success, seeing Scaly Thrushes, Orange-headed Thrushes and Japanese Thrushes in abundance, as well as gorgeous Bar-bellied Pittas, a flighty Blue-rumped Pitta and a couple of those neat birds – a Eurasian Woodcock and Rufous-tailed Robin. A brief exploration of the so-called Primitive Cave revealed the much hoped for Limestone Wren-Babblers, ever inquisitive and active. Further up the road at the rather amusingly named Bong Substation, we found many excellent birds along the roads and the trails including the near-endemic mammoth-sized Red-vented Barbet, fleeting Bay Woodpeckers, Rufous-throated Fulvetta, and that masterful songster, the White-tailed Flycatcher. Around the park headquarters we found a cute little Pied Falconet doing the characteristic head bob from atop the tallest tree. We also paid a visit to the Cuc Phuong Primate Rescue Center, which does such important work with captive breeding and reintroductions of 15 species of Vietnam’s endangered primates. We were able to see a number of these highly endangered beautiful species including Delacour’s Langur, Hatinh Langur, Cat Ba langur, and Grey-shanked Douc Langur.

Taking our leave of this wonderful area of limestone karsts and gorgeous rainforest, we dropped into the Van Long Wetland Reserve to have a quick sojourn on small sampan boats out over the water to the limestone cliffs and caves, which are home to the aforementioned Delacour’s Langur. This beautiful black and white monkey sports an amazingly long, luscious tail, a punk hairdo and the name of a famous French-American ornithologist who conducted numerous scientific expeditions in Vietnam in the 1920s and 30s.

From south of Hanoi we traveled through the metropolis to arrive in Tam Dao, a small former colonial hill station directly to the city’s north. As usual we found the town shrouded in fog but awoke the next day to find clear, blue skies although sadly that didn’t last! Unfortunately, the proximity of this national park to Hanoi has made it increasingly popular and that, along with poor management, has made birding here more and more challenging over the years. We did find some of our targets but not without considerable effort. The highlight was the very tiny Short-tailed Parrotbill cavorting in the bamboo (although those homemade cakes that lady was selling came in a close second!).

It was time to head south so we packed up and said goodbye to the cold weather and took flight down south to Huê in central Vietnam, where we found it to be only marginally warmer. Bach Ma was also enveloped in thick fog and occasional rain, making for challenging conditions. Happily, the remarkable Indochinese Wren-Babbler didn’t seem to mind at all and put on a terrific show for us. Despite the inclement conditions we turned up some aces – a stunning male Silver Pheasant, a nest building Orange-bellied Leafbird, and the endemic Indochinese Yuhina.

It would be dishonest to say we weren’t happy to say goodbye to Bach Ma, so we headed down the mountain and back to Huê, stopping at the base to pick up some knockout Masked Laughingthrushes, Racket-tailed Treepies, and hordes of Chinese Blackbirds on their passage migration. In Huê we took a respite at the splendid Hotel Morin. Established in 1901, it is one of the oldest hotels in Vietnam and a simply sublime example of the French colonial architecture that is such a feature of Vietnam’s fine cities. I first visited this hotel in 1992, the period during which, as the website describes it, “the building is continuously ruined by the weather and war, no renovation at all.” It’s such a joy to see the building now restored to its former glory. I think it’s safe to say that our leisurely lunch in the spacious and green open courtyard was a trip highlight! Lunch was followed by a brief exploration of the remarkable and fascinating Imperial City of Huê, home to successive ruling Nguyên dynasty lords of this ancient and complex country prior to colonization by the French.  

Our next destination was Phong Nha-K? Bàng National Park, a few hours’ drive north of Huê. This fascinating place was created to protect not only the wonderful forest and diverse wildlife - it is the location of one of the largest karst systems in the world and with that some of most spectacular caves in the world, including the world’s largest – Song Doòn. There are over 300 caves here totaling over 126 km in length. In between searching for the endemic and charismatic Sooty Babbler and the almost mythical Red-collared Woodpecker, we took out some time to take a boat to visit the Phong Nha cave, which holds the record for having the longest underground river and the largest combined caverns. Everyone agreed they had never seen a more amazing cave with its enormous stalactites and stalagmites and incredible caverns.

Our next stop was to be a town called Mang Den, a place rather far to the south so we took our time traveling there with a break at the seaside area of Lang Co to look for the recently described White-faced Plover. From there we headed to Lo Xo Pass to find another recently discovered bird, the Black-crowned Barwing. Both of our quests were successful, much to our satisfaction. From our base at the rather strange hill resort town of Mang Den we ventured out to the (formerly) nearby but now more and more distant forest in search of some neat forest birds, in particular the recently discovered Chestnut-eared Laughingthrush (there are many of these recently discovered birds in central Vietnam). While we did see the laughingthrush, it proved very shy and elusive. A number of other great sightings made up for its recalcitrance though and we managed to pin down Stripe-breasted Woodpecker, Ratchet-tailed Treepie, Pale Blue Flycatcher, Maroon Oriole, Grey-crowned Tit, Spot-throated Babbler, Black-hooded Laughingthrush and Yellow-billed Nuthatch amongst others.

Continuing south, we flew from Pleiku, the capital of Gia Lai Province, down to Saigon, where we stopped for a delicious lunch of modern Vietnamese cuisine before journeying onwards to Cat Tien National Park, which proved to be both the hottest and the best birding place on our itinerary. Here we spent three days exploring the roads and trails with their evocative names like Heaven Rapids and Crocodile Lake. We found neither heaven nor crocodiles, but we did find a rather heavenly assortment of birds! Highlights were many – a grand pair of Great Hornbills was a personal favourite. Despite missing the peacock-pheasant, we had an excellent trip for the galliformes – Scaly-breasted Partridges scuttled around the forest floor showing well a handful of times, Red Junglefowl seemed to be everywhere this year, the superlative-defying Siamese Fireback showed off to us more than once, and stunning Green Peafowl strutted around in the grasslands. A nesting family of improbable Dusky Broadbills kept us entertained one morning, as did a breeding pair of sleek Shikras. During the daylight hours Red-breasted Parakeets streaked overhead, only to be replaced by floating Great Eared-Nightjars at dusk. A family group of Buff-cheeked Gibbons serenaded us every morning, their calls replaced by those of the incessant took-tooks of the Lineated Barbets as the heat took over. And what a great woodpecker show! In total we saw ten species here, including the scarce Pale-headed – a bamboo specialist, and the very neat Heart-spotted. To top everything off, we were able to take advantage of a new feeding station that’s been established in the park, which attracts a mouth-watering array of gems such as Bar-bellied Pitta, Blue-rumped Pitta, Siberian Blue Robin, and Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher, not to mention a very cute Northern Pencil-tailed Treeshrew.

Our final destination was the town of Da Lat situated atop the Da Lat Plateau, designated by Birdlife as an important Endemic Bird Area and there are many, many great birds to be found here. We explored a number of different areas – the Ta Nung Valley, Mount Lang Bian, and Bi Doup National Park. The delightful Ta Nung Valley repaid our efforts with many good birds, the gorgeous Orange-breasted Laughingthrush and wonderful Grey-crowned Crocias being particular standouts. The crocias held out until the last minute before finally rewarding us with repeated and amazing close views. Lang Bian started off with a bang – a stunning Vietnamese Cutia came right in to give us super looks. After that a rather hard slog gave returns with a superb little group of Collared Laughingthrush, one of the showiest of a showy group. Apart from an attack by vicious black flies, Bi Doup was a lot of fun, starting off with a very entertaining mixed flock and followed with a neat Vietnamese Crossbill, sneaky Black-crowned Fulvettas, an elusive Spotted Forktail and a too-cute-for-words Pygmy Cupwing. On our last morning as we headed back to Saigon, a brief stop at Datanla Waterfall was a most pleasant surprise. In the space of only an hour or so we finished off a wonderful tour with a smorgasbord of goodies starting with Orange-headed Thrushes, then a Red-headed Trogon, a White-throated Rock Thrush that tried to show him up, our first Eurasian Jay, and then remarkably another Vietnamese Cutia. What a finale!

I’d like to mention the great local people who helped make our tour so enjoyable. Our “fixer” who accompanied us throughout; he was always pleasant, helpful, capable, and fun to have around. Our three drivers in the north, centre and south were all very capable, pleasant and, best of all, safe. On top of that, it was fun this year to bump into so many of my Vietnamese birding friends - who all shared any latest information they had. Thanks to our ground agent for their excellent ground arrangements. Lastly, thank you all for being a great group on this sometimes demanding, always rewarding and fun tour. I hope to meet you all again some time.

                                                                                                                                                         Susan Myers         

Created: 19 April 2016