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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Cambodia

2018 Narrative

IN BRIEF: We ended up with a great list of exciting birds on our twelfth Cambodia tour 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, some neat owls – Collared, Oriental and Spotted Owlets, three species of hornbill and a remarkable 10 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 babblers, 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 some neat birds 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 pair of elusive Forest Wagtails. 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.

OKOKI & 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 first connect with a delightful pair of very cute Collared Falconets, the world’s smallest raptors before John expertly spotted a gorgeous female White-rumped Falcon perched inconspicuously nearby. Continuing our drive, we encountered a spectacular pair of hunting Black Baza, along with Rufous-winged Buzzards. After a tasty picnic lunch en route, we arrived at our somewhat tented accommodations in this very remote corner of Asia.

Arriving at Okoki, we settled into our tented lodge before venturing into the forest to wait patiently at a hide overlooking a waterhole in hopes of an appearance of the White-winged Duck. Sadly, our patience did not reward us, but we were very lucky to find a superb Large-eyed Pit Viper that was admired at length. I’m not sure one of the participants was as thrilled as we were by her extraordinary find as it was sitting right next to her on her makeshift log chair!

From Okoki we took a short drive to Tmatboey, home to those two rarest of ibises - Giant and the White-shouldered, two of the 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 walk through a maze of dusty trails to begin our birding here where we found our much-hoped for White-shouldered Ibis. We continued the following morning with our search for the Giant. After a bit of a walk our patience paid off and we were able to scope a single bird at length. What a creature! The woodlands at Tmatboey 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 are remarkable, and we spent this amazing morning wandering around the dry woodlands in search of our quarry. After a fabulous Giant Ibis posed for us as the sun rose, we sat on a nearby log to revel in our good luck whilst eating our hearty breakfast. Such fun! As we continued birding, we found a personal favourite, the 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, Black-collared, and masses of Small Minivets. Golden-fronted Leafbirds seemed to be everywhere as did Purple Sunbirds and Common Woodshrikes. As usual, the woodpeckers provided much entertainment and along with the aforementioned Great Slaty and Black-headeds, we found Common Flameback, Greater Flameback, Grey-crowned Pygmy, Freckle-breasted, the very attractive Rufous-bellied and the often elusive Yellow-crowned.

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 search for the rare Bengal Floricans which showed brilliantly in flight, not once but four times. 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, a Rosy Pipit, and admittedly a very fleeting Manchurian Reed-Warbler.

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 a very 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. As we waited for dusk to fall at a not very salubrious building site overlooking some lovely rainforest, our hoped-for Green Peafowls put in an appearance (thanks to the sharp eyes of our drivers) 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 some lovely sighting including some more peafowls, a not so cooperative Orange-breasted Trogon, the near-endemic Grey-faced Tit-Babbler, and Blyth’s Paradise Flycatcher. Later we visited a productive forest area where we were rewarded with a small flock of Swinhoe’s Minivet as well as bunch of other fancy birds including a super Fork-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo, Ruby-cheeked Sunbird, showy Annam Barbets, Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrikes, and a single Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo.

Our morning at Dak Dam was quite good this year with a very superb Rufous-bellied Eagle, many Pin-tailed Green Pigeons, and some Vinous-breasted Starlings before making our way to Phnom Penh. On the outskirts of the city we stopped at a 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 good birding nonetheless. In the forest we eventually tracked down a pair of White-browed Scimitar-Babblers, although he was hard work! Whitebrowed Shrike-Babblers were more cooperative although high up in the trees. Albeit only in flight, we did have some good looks at Barred Cuckoo-Doves, and a many gorgeous Asian Fairy-bluebirds.

We finished our tour off at a strategic overlook where we had our best birding at Bokor with large numbers of Great Hornbills in company with some Wreathed Hornbills and a brachiating Pileated Gibbon feeding in fruiting fig trees. A fitting end!

-Susan Myers

Created: 14 January 2019