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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative


2018 Narrative

It’s now been about seven years since Myanmar’s government released liberation activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi from 15 years of house arrest. At the same time, they launched an ongoing series of reforms and, for a short while, this Southeast Asian country started to emerge from the tourism shadows. A record 2.2 million visitors entered Myanmar in 2016 but subsequent events and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya across the border with Bangladesh in the latter half of 2017 stymied all of this and Myanmar was, once again, partially ostracised. Even so we were among the (rather few) foreign tourists to visit this fabulously welcoming, fabulously friendly, fabulously bird-rich, fascinating nation in January 2018 and were delighted that we’d done it.

After spending our first afternoon sightseeing around the spectacular Shwedagon Pagoda in downtown Yangon our Burmese guide, Gideon, took us out to Hlawga Park early the following morning. Hlawga yielded an exciting array of introductory species with two of them, both write-ins on our checklist, coming in the forms of a couple of Large-tailed Nightjars and an immature Brahminy Kite being seen from the car park where we had breakfast! Walking on it didn’t take us long to find the area’s Racket-tailed Treepies, three gorgeous species of bee-eater, and two typically elusive Chestnut-capped Babblers. Further into the park we enjoyed looks at Red Junglefowl and our first water birds with particularly impressive numbers of Asian Openbills (40), Lesser Whistling Teal (80) and Indian Spot-billed Ducks (12); our first Black-winged Cuckooshrike, several Rosy and a solitary Ashy Minivet. Other highlights included our first Eyebrowed Thrush, a pair of Stripe-throated (or Pale-eyed) Bulbuls, umpteen Scarlet-backed Flowerpeckers, Ruby-cheeked and Olive-backed Sunbirds and a typically elusive Forest Wagtail. We also saw decent numbers of introduced mammals including Sambar (30) and Hog Deer (20) – respectable tallies on a tour where we wouldn’t see very many other critters at all.

Later that afternoon we had our first internal flight as we headed up to Bagan. Our time in the Dry Zone around the spectacular ancient city of Bagan, itself a World Heritage site, was superb. Four of Myanmar’s six endemic birds awaited and all of them performed brilliantly. White-throated Babbler (we’d go on to see these even in the hotel grounds), the common Jerdon’s Bush Lark, and the stunningly attractive Jerdon’s Minivet were seen easily and surprisingly quickly. Only the fourth, Hooded Treepie, took more effort but the views that we eventually had were well worth the wait. We’d see all four of these endemics again the following morning – and even improved on our views of the treepie!

Our time around Bagan also produced brilliant looks at two Laggar Falcons, umpteen Vinous-breasted Starlings, the distinctive endemic Myanmar xanthocyclus form of Eurasian Collared Dove, several obliging Plaintive Cuckoos, no less than five Spotted Owlets, Plain-backed Sparrows galore, Brown Prinia, a Eurasian Wryneck, and decent numbers of Burmese Shrikes. With three nights and two full days at Bagan we also found time to have a guided sightseeing excursion (complete with a dark morph Booted Eagle over the Ananda Temple) and a cruise on the Irrawaddy river (once referred to as ‘the road to Mandalay’). The latter produced fabulous encounters with two Pied Harriers – one of which was a stunning male, umpteen Sand Larks and four White-tailed Stonechats. Unfortunately, the Chinese Francolin and the three Rain Quail that we noted were only heard, and not even glimpsed, and most of us only saw the tracks of ‘Gideon’s Whale’ (aka Burmese Hare). Nevertheless, Bagan had produced the goods – the birds, the scenery, and the splendour. We even found time to enjoy a lunar eclipse, drinks-in-hand, from the hotel lawn.

Mount Victoria was our next destination and our fleet of 4WD vehicles transported us there in the style that we were already becoming accustomed to. We scored on route with great looks at both Blossom-headed and Red-breasted (and would revel in even better looks at Grey-headed on the return journey). An inquisitive Burmese (no-longed Neglected) Nuthatch stole the show though a Changeable Hawk-eagle, four Crested Serpent Eagles, and an Asian Barred Owlet seen by a lucky few on the lower slopes of the mountain pushed it hard.

Mount Victoria was just as good as we’d dreamt it would be. The fabulous oak and rhododendron forests of the mountain’s higher elevations held our two remaining endemics and we had several encounters of both. The poorly-known Burmese Bushtit performed well, but it was what’s arguably Myanmar’s most sought after avian jewel, the rare and very local White-browed Nuthatch that really stole the show! Both proved much easier to see than we’d ever dared hope and, satiated with these, we could move on in search of the mountain’s other avian prizes. With five nights and four full days on this fabulous mountain rather little escaped us. Mount Victoria Babax fell at what was almost the first hurdle, as eventually did the trio of laughingthrushes: Assam, Striped and Brown-capped. As you’d expect Chin Hills Wren Babbler and Chestnut-headed Tesia proved a little more awkward but our efforts were worth it in the end.

Other show stoppers included a close range, cruising Black Eagle, great looks at a perched Large Hawk Cuckoo, more Hume’s Treecreepers than you could shake a stick at, stunning looks at all three species of barbet, (Great, Golden- and Blue-throated), a fine pair of Streak-throated Barwings. An impressive range of well seen woodpeckers included Rufous-bellied, Stripe-breasted, Crimson-breasted, Darjeeling, and a Lesser Yellownape that came from ‘over the horizon’ to check us out. We also saw Black-bibbed Tit twice, had Grey Sibias galore and similarly impressive numbers of often confiding Grey-sided Thrushes. But it was the stunning, scope-view encounter with a Hodgson’s Frogmouth that really stole the show – and gave the species top ranking in the end of tour Bird of the Trip poll. Our picnics in the field were great and meals back at the lodge thoroughly impressive.

Our next port of call was Inle, Myanmar’s second largest lake, and we’d no sooner checked in to our hotel than we were back out again – this time taking a lengthy boat ride. The leg rowers and fishermen were out in force but, fascinating though they were, it wasn’t them that we’d come to see – nor for that matter were the gulls, the myriad Asian Openbills and Glossy Ibis, the Cinnamon Bitterns, the Black-winged Kites, or the harriers. Our quarries were quality rarities in the forms of Jerdon’s Bush Chat, Chinese Grassbird, and Collared Myna. They all took a deal of effort and, with a windy afternoon, we initially struggled to see the chat but went on to log 41 of these magnificent creatures on the following morning’s second boat ride! Even so we totally failed to see the ever-elusive grassbird and had to stop off at an additional site to improve on our flight-only views of the myna. But what a real pleasure the boat rides were.

The hill station of Kalaw was our next, and final, destination and we had a full day-and-a-half there. Gideon kindly invited us back to his home where we met his wife, mother, and daughter, and were treated to great looks at our first Dark-backed Sibias, Chestnut-tailed Starlings, and Slender-billed Orioles from the comfort of his garden! Moving on he found us a pair of Spectacled Barwings, White-browed Scimitar-babblers, our first (of three!) Black-tailed Crakes, a pair of Spot-breasted Parrotbills, and our first Cook’s Swifts. AND that was only our first afternoon.

The following day was our last and we marked it, and Brian’s birthday, with a lengthy full day’s walk through forest near Kalaw. Burmese Yuhina was our primary target – a bird that despite what its name implies isn’t quite an endemic. That said it’s certainly difficult to see away from Myanmar. And so it proved even here – it made us wait…and wait…and wait but we eventually saw three birds. Other goodies here included several Black-headed Greenfinches, fabulous looks at Eurasian Jays of the distinctive leucotis subspecies, great studies of a perched Crested Goshawk, three Pin-tailed Green Pigeons, two more Black-tailed Crakes, a Blue-bearded Bee-eater, a Violet Cuckoo that was as elusive as the bee-eater was cooperative, a pair of Red-headed Trogon, and our eighth and final write-in, a party of four Black-throated Laughingthrushes.

I think that it’s safe to say that Myanmar exceeded many of our expectations and we were blessed with gorgeous weather throughout. Myanmar, with its rich heritage, friendly, inviting people and diverse culture, had proved to be a truly fascinating and massively rewarding country to visit.

Recent political reform has finally opened Myanmar’s doors and what still is, both culturally and ornithologically, a desperately poorly-known country certainly won’t remain that way for much longer. The largest and most ornithologically diverse country in Southeast Asia, it’s blessed with a series of endemics and other specialities. Myanmar is a fascinating destination in so many ways and we were enthralled by our modest insights into its unique culture and heritage. It’s difficult to single out just one highlight from what was a great tour – we simply explored so many radically different areas from the higher elevation, rich forests on the peaks of Mount Victoria, to the open savannah-type terrain of the Irrawaddy Plain, and the historic capital at Yangon (formerly Rangoon). For many of us however our visit to Bagan, one of the nation’s richest historic sites, was the undoubted highlight.

To this day very few birders have visited this exciting country and we were lucky that we can now count ourselves among the vanguard. The previously introspective military government are hopefully a thing of the past and the flood gates now open. Burma, as it was once known, has massive potential once again.

Created: 16 February 2018