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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative


2017 Narrative

IN BRIEF: It’s funny and fascinating how unpredictable nature is - and the nature of life, for that matter! This was my eleventh tour of Cambodia and each and every visit has revealed something new and different in terms of all sorts of things – wildlife, climate, food and people. This year we had six write ins – all new birds for Wings in Cambodia. A great group effort to spot such beauties as Black Stork, Oriental Scops Owl, Grey-faced Buzzard, Wryneck, Blyth’s Leaf Warbler, and Blue-and-white Flycatcher. We ended up with a great list of exciting birds ranging from the enigmatic Giant Ibis, brilliant Green Peafowls, strutting Bengal Floricans, the rare and gorgeous White-rumped Falcon, the endemic Mekong Wagtail, down to the tiny and only recently discovered Cambodian Tailorbird. Some other stars included Chinese Francolin at Tmatboey that popped up and posed for us, a bunch of owls – Collared and Asian Barred Owlets, Spotted and Brown Wood-Owls, Brown Hawk Owl and Oriental Scops Owl, three species of hornbill and a remarkable 12 species of woodpecker! On the passerine front, we also had a lot of fun with some notable species including Racket-tailed Treepie, brilliant Red-billed Blue Magpies, all possible bulbuls but one, a little group of spritely Chestnut-headed Babblers amongst other often infuriating bablers, White-throated Rock-Thrushes, and some very pretty sunbirds and flowerpeckers.

ANGKOR: As always our trip began with an exploration of the incomparable Angkor Wat. A predawn departure from our comfortable hotel saw us making our way to the quiet Ta Kou Entrance on the temple’s east side where we searched for Northern Boobooks before enjoying a tasty box breakfast as the sun came up. We then returned to the woodlands of the temples grounds where we kicked off our Cambodian birding with Lineated Barbets, Hainan Blue-Flycatchers, and a somewhat uncooperative Forest Wagtail. Our temple guide explained some of the history of this amazing ancient city and its buildings as we constantly interrupted him to check out the latest sighting. Over the course of the day we found large numbers of Red-breasted Parakeets and a couple of impressive Alexandrines amongst them but the real focus of the day was the magnificent 12th century architecture of this incredible UNESCO site.

ANG TRAPEANG THMOR: In recent years the roads of Cambodia have greatly improved meaning we don’t have to get up quite as early as we used to! We still left well before dawn in order to watch the sun come up in the company of Sarus Cranes amongst many other wonderful Cambodian birds. We made our first acquaintance with Oriental Pratincoles as they floated over the fields and the local rangers took us to a roosting site of a very handsome Spotted Wood-Owl. Arguably, the most exciting bird of the day was a cryptic Wryneck, nicely spotted by a participant. Later we had another rarity – a bird that both Mony and I initially thought to be Black-necked Stork, on closer inspection turned out to be a Black Stork. Quite an exciting record! We spent the day investigating various sites for our first full day of serious birding in the Khmer Kingdom, before returning to Siem Reap with a stop to look at the incredible fruit bat colony in the centre of town.

PREY VENG & TMATBOEY: Next we headed north to the dry savanna woodlands of the north with a stop en route to look for the increasingly rare White-rumped Falcon. We weren’t successful on this attempt but we did find a pair of very cute Collared Falconets, the world’s smallest raptors. After a delicious lunch en route we arrived at our somewhat basic accommodations in this very remote corner of Asia. The woodlands here don’t look all that promising at first glance but are actually teeming with birds. It’s not until the evenings and then the mornings that this becomes apparent. The bird song and activity is remarkable and we spent an amazing morning wandering around the nearby wetland area with exciting birds including Black Baza, Orange-breasted Green-Pigeon, Greater Yellownape, Black-headed Woodpecker (the world’s best looking woodpecker?) as they excitedly puffed out their bright red rump feathers, a wing-flicking family group of Great Slaty Woodpeckers, handsome Burmese Shrikes, some uncharacteristically elusive White-crowned Laughingthrushes, and a bunch of excellent Sturnids including Black-collared, Chestnut-tailed and Vinous-breasted Starlings. Golden-fronted Leafbirds seemed to be everywhere and in amongst the reeds and lotuses we spotted Bronze-winged Jacanas, Cotton Pygmy-Geese, Black-browed Reed-Warblers and another, closer pair of stately Sarus Cranes.

From Prey Veng we took a short drive to Tmatboey, home of the Giant Ibis, one of our main targets of any tour to Cambodia. Arriving in the heat of the day, and it does get very hot, we took a break after a delicious lunch prepared by the ladies of the village, before taking a short drive through a maze of dusty roads to begin our birding here. The following day we again drove out to an area of woodland where the local rangers thought we had a chance of finding White-shouldered Ibis. After a bit of effort, we succeeded with a single bird perching up nicely for us. We continued then with our search for the Giant. After various tip offs and attempts our patience paid of and we were able to scope a single bird at length. What a creature! Next we tried our luck with the White-rumped Falcon and this time we were in luck with superb views of a pair of this gorgeous bird. Our birding continued with more exciting finds including Brown Wood-Owl, Wooly-necked Stork, Rufous-winged Buzzard, Barred Buttonquail, Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, Indian Cuckoo, Savanna Nightjar, Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, the evocatively-named Blossom-headed Parakeet, Small Minivet, Black-hooded Oriole and Red-billed Blue Magpie to name just a few. Our last morning at Tmatboey was spent with some leisurely riverside birding where we waited for the birds to come to us and they did – Red Junglefowl, Besra, Green-billed Malkoha, Blue-bearded Bee-eater Stork-billed Kingfisher, and Banded Broadbill all put in appearances.

KRATIE: We returned to our oasis in Siem Reap at the Sonalong Hotel in preparation for our journey to Kratie by way of the Steung Grasslands. Arriving just on dawn we were met by the local rangers who guided us out into the grasslands and fields to see the haughty-looking Bengal Floricans as they strutted around with heads held high. This member of the bustard family (Otididae) is critically endangered with the total world population estimated to be only 350-1,500 birds. This small area in Cambodia is absolutely vital to the survival of the species and it’s hoped that visits to the area by birders will help with the remarkable efforts of the local people in this very poor country. Sightings of the birds are by no means guaranteed so it was a very happy morning all round, especially with added bonuses in the form of gem-like Red Avadavats and fleeting Manchurian Reed-Warblers.

Taking our leave of the grasslands, we drove eastwards and over the mighty Mekong River to the riverside town of Kratie. The major birding attraction here is the relatively recently described Mekong Wagtail, which specializes on making a living on the little rocky islands of the shallow braided parts of the Mekong River. We took a morning boat trip out to see them, which was lovely and refreshing, and also found some rather cute Small Pratincoles, literally thousands of Little and Indian Cormorants, and confiding pod of the mysterious Irrawaddy Dolphins.

SEIMA/DAK DAM:  This is quite a varied tour in terms of the habitat types we visit and our next birding was in two quite different environments – the lowland tropical rainforest of Seima and the cooler hill forests of Dak Dam. Our evening birding in a not very salubrious building site overlooking some lovely rainforest was productive with some acrobatic Brown-backed Needletails, a single Crested Goshawk and a very cooperative Red-vented Barbet, an impressive Indochinese endemic. As we waited for dusk to fall, our hoped-for Green Peafowls put in an appearance and we were able to enjoy great looks at this very fancy bird, and one that is sadly rapidly declining throughout its range. The following day we left our hotel early to visit a different area where we breakfasted with the birds before venturing into the forest. This was a fun and successful morning with another write-in bird, a Blue-and-white Flycatcher – a new bird for me in Cambodia. Collared Owlet responded beautifully to playback, as did a pair of gorgeous Orange-breasted Trogons, and best of all a male and female Banded Kingfisher. Grey-headed Woodpecker was a welcome surprise, as were a small flock of Swinhoe’s Minivet. Our morning at Dak Dam was a little disappointing with very little activity but we did find a very impressive Black Eagle, many Pin-tailed Green Pigeons, and couple of stunning Long-tailed Broadbills before making our way to Phnom Penh. On the outskirts of the city we stopped at dusty and sad-looking place where we quickly found a pair of the newly described Cambodian Tailorbirds. Birdlife International classifies it as Near Threatened; as they say “This remarkable newly-discovered species is inferred to be suffering a moderately rapid population decline due to habitat conversion throughout its range” due to the fact its entire range is within the outer areas of Phnom Penh, an ever expanding city.   

BOKOR: Our last leg of our birding journey was to be up in the montane forests of Bokor National Park. Even though there is a crazy casino and an even crazier plan for a housing estate, large expanses of excellent forest remain. Our search for the shy and retiring Cambodian Partridge was sadly unsuccessful but we had some great birding nonetheless. A migratory Grey-faced Buzzard spied perched on a lone tree overlooking the plateau was a nice surprise. In the forest we eventually tracked down a Red-headed Trogon, although he was hard work! White-browed Scimitar-Babblers were more cooperative although quick and skulking so not easy to nail down.  

At a strategic overlook we had our best birding at Bokor with good looks, albeit only in flight, of Barred Cuckoo-Doves, some feisty Fork-tailed Drongo-Cuckoos and a seemingly endless supply of Asian Fairy-bluebirds. To our great joy with finished off our birding in Cambodia with wonderful looks at both Wreathed and Great Hornbills. A fitting end!

-Susan Myers

Created: 23 March 2017