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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative


2022 Narrative

November 27: The tour began with a get together and dinner at our lovely hotel in Siem Reap, the Sonalong. The garden is lush and tropical, supporting a variety of the more common garden birds to be found in Cambodia, so it’s a perfect place to start our birding explorations.

November 28: This morning we had an early start. We drove to the entry of the Angkor Complex entry where we picked up our tickets and arrived at Angkor Wat just before sunrise. We walked to the central temple for the breath-taking sunrise, then made our way along the south boundary to the Eastern entrance for breakfast, spotting a few birds along the way. The Forest Wagtails and a Black-capped Kingfisher were undoubtedly the highlights, but some Cotton Pygmy Geese, Bronze- winged Jacanas, Indochinese Rollers, Coppersmith Barbets, and others rounded out an excellent morning’s birding. As we walked the northern boundary, we came across Ashy Minivets and the hoped-for Hainan Blue Flycatcher, before our exploration of the magnificent Angkor Wat (temple). Next, we dropped into Bayon, a Khmer Buddhist temple dating back to the 12th Century. Described as “one of the most enigmatic and powerful religious structures in the world”, with its serene stone faces of the Brahma this is a truly beautiful temple. After a delicious lunch at the Khmer House Kitchen, we birded and explored Ta Prohm, another temple but this time with a difference – it has been allowed to remain in its “natural state” as an example of how the whole complex must have looked when it was rediscovered in the 19th Century. With this we completed our birding and cultural explorations of one of the most remarkable archaeological sites in the world, a testament to the mighty Khmer Empire of old. In the evening we dined outside our hotel at the Neary Khmer  Restaurant.

November 29: The serious birding began today! We headed out before dawn again for the drive to our ride through the flooded northern plains of Tonle Sap, the largest and most amazing lake in Southeast Asia. Our boatman steered us through the labyrinth of waterways and islands to the floating village of Prek Toal where we checked in with the local rangers and changed to two smaller boats for our trip into the shallower waters of the Prek Toal Wetland Reserve. This important RAMSAR site is a haven for many species of waterbird, including some very rare ones, and these were our targets. In order to get high enough to observe the birds roosting in the treetops we had to climb a rickety ladder to a platform in a tree. Quite the adventure! (But lots of fun). We soon found our targets – the Greater Adjutant and the Milky Stork, as well as a multitude of Spot-billed Pelicans, Asian Openbills, Painted Storks, Oriental Darters and three species of cormorant. As we cruised back from the platform, we spotted large numbers of herons and egrets, as well as Blue- tailed Bee-eaters, Black Drongos and Great Mynas. Amongst these we came across a superb Grey- headed Fish-Eagle, which we were able to watch at length before heading to our floating restaurant for lunch back at the village. We finished off the day with a visit to the amazing Fruit Bat (Flying Fox colony) in the centre of Siem Reap.

November 30: Today we said goodbye to Siem Reap and headed eastwards to our next destination. Our first task for today was to find the wonderful Bengal Florican, a Critically Endangered small bustard that is only found in the subcontinent and in Cambodia. The endemic blandini subspecies we saw so well has a very important population of around 200 male birds but even this continues to decline. From Steung we continued to our next destination to the north, Prey Veng, where got in some afternoon birding connecting with some excellent birds like Rufous-winged Buzzard, Asian Green Bee-eater, White-browed Fantail, Burmese Shrike, and Brown Prinia. The group of Great Slaty Woodpeckers spotted by Dottie were the undoubted stars of the show, though. Later in the evening we were serenaded by a Brown Boobook before dinner.

December 1: We very successfully birded the open deciduous forests around our lodge this morning. While Coppersmith and Lineated Barbets serenaded us with their incessant took-took calls, we recorded many high-quality birds such as the hulking Green-billed Malkoha, a surprise and very welcome Asian Emerald Cuckoo, White-bellied Woodpecker, Black-hooded Oriole, White- crested Laughingthrush, and a swag of starlings – Black-collared and Chestnut-tailed Starlings and Common and Vinous-breasted Mynas. A woodpecker provided the excitement of the morning in the form of an active but cooperative group of gorgeous Black-headed Woodpecker. Many agree that this is one of the best-looking woodpeckers in the world!

Leaving Prey Veng, we hit the road again heading further north towards Tmatboey, one of the most important legs of our trip, namely because it is the home of the legendary Giant Ibis, as well as another highly endangered ibis, the White-shouldered Ibis. The latter was the target of our opening birding foray to this fantastic site. We succeeded admirably with the latter despite a nearby, and typically very noisy, party being held by the local villagers.

December 2: Our morning started very early so that we could be in place to visit watch a pair of Giant Ibis attending their nest without disturbing them unduly. The local rangers are fabulous people who care deeply about the welfare of the birds and forest; they monitor all Giant Ibis in the area daily and without them the future of this enigmatic species would be very uncertain.

The birding continued through the day, with a short break after lunch. Sadly, we struck out with White-rumped Falcon this year but there were many other birds to hold our attention. A pair of stately Yellow-footed Pigeons were spotted along the roadside, and we had really nice looks at a vocal Banded Bay Cuckoo, handsome Crested Treeswifts, three species of prinia - Brown, Rufescent and Grey-breasted, as well as two species of smart nuthatch - Burmese and Velvet-fronted. As we would come to expect the ladies at our simple village lodge produced a delicious evening meal for us after we returned late from some late afternoon adventures with Savanna Nightjars, Oriental Scops Owls, and others.

December 3: Our birding continued over the next two days in the dry open dipterocarp woodland, which was again productive with a Chinese Francolin, seen at last, Crested Serpent Eagles, Asian Barred Owlets, Eurasian Hoopoes with their crazy hairdos, so many little flocks of Small Minivets, frustrating Indochinese Bushlarks, plenty of Purple Sunbirds, and many others. We found a wintering Siberian Rubythroat, which was super responsive but so quick and furtive that seeing it well proved an impossible task. Rubythroat 1: Birders 0! Big numbers of Oriental Pied Hornbills were greeted with great enthusiasm, and Chestnut-capped Babblers led us on a merry chase, but we eventually got the better of them.

December 4: Taking our leave of Tmatboey, we continued eastwards, stopping along the way to admire  diminutive roadside Collared Falconets, the world’s smallest bird of prey, and very cute as well. Our next destination was the famed “Vulture Restaurant” where the local Boeng Toal community has set up a hide to enable birders to view at close range the endangered vultures that have managed to survive, if not necessarily thrive, in northern Cambodia. We pay to have a cow slaughtered that will attract the birds (this sounds harsh but it’s an important step in aiding the survival of these important birds). This evening we found only one bird at the carcass, but many others were staging in trees on the horizon, so we were hopeful for the morning.

December 5: These vultures are super, super sensitive to noise and disturbance so out of necessity we had to walk the last few hundred metres to the hide in the dark and wait patiently in total silence for the sun to rise. Unfortunately, even this didn’t help and hoped for large numbers of vultures never turned up. It’s possible that Golden-backed Jackals stole most of the food in the night but it’s very hard to know. Nevertheless, eventually a handful of birds of three species - Slender-billed, White-rumped and Red-headed – were seen very well. The Red-headed Vulture in particular is a very impressive bird. But the forest here holds many other species, too, and walking out, after marvelling at vultures soaring low over our heads, we had plenty of other great birds including a pair of handsome Rufous-bellied Woodpeckers, more Black-headed Woodpeckers, Large Woodshrikes, and Golden-fronted Leafbirds. All of the sites we visit in the north are only possible thanks to the local communities. The idea is that birding is mutually beneficial for villagers and birders alike.

After a late breakfast we took our leave and headed back south to the main road between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh for a much-deserved afternoon of luxury at our lovely hotel in Kampong Thom, which lies roughly halfway between the two much larger cities.

December 6: A pre breakfast outing to the nearby grasslands of was not only productive, but lots of fun. Late risers don’t know what they’re missing! The cool and fresh morning air and beautiful sunrise alone were worth the early start and then we also had some excellent birding. Bulky Striated Grassbirds posed beautifully, while hundreds of stately Painted Storks cruised overhead. A stunning Pied Harrier teetered past and a tantalising Siberian Rubythroat eventually gave us superb views – what a truly lovely bird.

Heading back to Kampong Thom, we made a brief stop to admire one of my favourite statues in Cambodia - the Tiger and Elephant Fighting statue, which depicts a story from the epic poem Reamker, which is the Cambodian version of the Ramayana.From Kampong Thom we drove across the legendary Mekong River, undoubtedly one of the most important rivers in the world. The world’s twelfth longest river and the third longest in Asia, it is a major trade route through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. We arrived at our destination, Kratie, in time for a short afternoon session of birding, which rounded out an action-packed day.

December 7: This morning promised to be a highlight of our travels in Cambodia, and it didn’t disappoint. Boarding our small, covered boats, we headed out to the braided islands and soon located our quarry – the restricted range Mekong Wagtail. Our next target, the Critically Endangered Irrawaddy Dolphin showed superbly, although as usual, getting photos proved to be a real challenge.

Saying goodbye to Kratie, we prepared for the long drive to Phnom Penh. On the outskirts of this huge city, we made a last birding stop of the day to try for the recently described Cambodian Tailorbird. In a quiet cul-de-sac hidden amongst the hideous industrial estates we found two birds which cavorted around us putting on a memorable show. Our journey into the city for our overnight stay involved another memorable experience, that of crossing the might Mekong by ferry. What fun!

December 8: We departed later than usual after a restful sojourn in PP for our next destination, the  little-known town of Pursat. Our reason for visiting this area was to track down the scarce and restricted range Chinese Grassbird, a poorly named bird as it is in fact a babbler, unlike all the other grassbirds which are members of a family of warblers, the Locustellidae. We decided to drive out over terrible roads to the grasslands where they are found and were very pleased to locate two birds in record time. This gave us time to add some other excellent birds to our list, including plentiful Zitting Cisticolas, Amur Stonechats, and Red Avadavats.

December 9: Pushing on we made the journey to the seaside town of Kampot. It was long but at the same time fun with so many interesting sights along the way!

We arrived in the charming town and soon headed to a nearby beach for some more birding. This turned out to be very top-quality birding indeed with some brilliant sightings of some highly sought- after species - Malaysian Plover, White-faced Plover, Eurasian Curlew and Chinese Egret! In the evening we enjoyed one of the best meals of our trip at a delightful restaurant located on the banks of the attractive Kampot River.

December 10: Sadly, our last morning of birding in Cambodia was marred somewhat by awful weather. The strong winds never let up and we were unable to fulfil the promise of the lovely Bokor  National Park. All was not lost though, thanks to an amazing show of over 25 mammoth Great Hornbills. Surely one of the most charismatic birds to be found anywhere! A single Wreathed Hornbill amongst them was an added bonus. And with that we said goodbye to the birds of Cambodia, headed back to Kampot for lunch and our return to Phnom Penh.

December 11: Many thanks to you all for making this a most enjoyable trip. Special thanks to Mony, who’s a star. Also, to our fantastic drivers, Dara, Sna and Sokha.

                                                                                                                                                                                 - Susan Myers

Created: 12 January 2023