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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Vietnam

2018 Narrative

IN DETAIL: 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. 

As has become our custom, we started our tour in the north, flying into Hanoi then kicking off our birding in Cuc Phuong National Park. Before heading into the park, 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 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. Some roadside birding nearby was also productive with some nice views of Pheasant-tailed Jacanas, Yellow Bittern and a bathing Dusky Warbler, amongst others.

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 and other neat birds on the roadside. And this year we had great success, seeing Japanese Thrushes in abundance, as well as a somewhat unexpected Malaysian Night Heron – a rarely seen bird that caused great excitement! On our very first outing we found a responsive little group of Red-throated Fulvettas as well as the pocket-sized Asian Stubtail. 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, a neat Asian Emerald Cuckoo, Red-headed Trogons, and that masterful songster, the White-tailed Flycatcher. Heading back to the park headquarters we found a cute little Pied Falconet doing the characteristic head bob from atop the tallest tree. Birding along the lower reaches of the road was also great and we connected with two very glamorous birds – the White-winged Magpie and the Ratchet-tailed Treepie, the latter showing off its unlikely looking tail quite well.

Taking our leave of this wonderful area of limestone karsts and gorgeous rainforest, we traveled through the metropolis of Ha Noi to arrive in Tam Dao, a small former colonial hill station directly to the city’s north. We were delighted to find clear, blue skies that miraculously lasted for our entire stay! We were also happy to find that management of the park has improved, and while the town is still becoming increasingly popular due to its proximity to Ha Noi, access to the forest has been restricted so that we were able to enjoy some good birding. We found our targets – Chestnut Bulbul, Short-tailed Parrotbill and Grey Laughingthrush.  While we had a number of good sightings, the highlights were undoubtedly the very tiny Short-tailed Parrotbills cavorting in the bamboo and a very lively and garrulous group of Grey Laughingthrushes. 

It was time to head south so we packed up and said goodbye to the north and took flight down south to central Vietnam, where we found more fine weather. Our next destination was Phong Nha-Ke 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 totalling over 126 km in length. In between searching for the endemic and charismatic Sooty Babbler, Limestone Warbler and the almost mythical Red-collared Woodpecker, we took out some time to visit to the Paradise Cave, which is the second largest cave in the world. Everyone agreed they had never seen a more amazing cave with its enormous stalactites and stalagmites and incredible caverns. 

Leaving Phong Nha we backtracked towards Huê, where we took our lunch at a restaurant set in a splendid old French colonial building. Lunch was followed by an afternoon 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 Bach Ma National Park, set at the top of a precipitous mountain. We stopped first at the base to pick up some fleeting views of somewhat uncooperative Masked Laughingthrushes before transferring to minibuses for the trip to the top. Maybe due to the uncharacteristically fine weather we found the birding to be a little slow. But we did have some nice views of the very distinctive subspecies of Sultan Tit with its all black crest, as well as the endemic Indochinese Yuhina and a few interesting warblers along with sensational Long-tailed Broadbills.

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 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 four 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 fabulous Great Hornbill being chased by a Greater Racket-tailed Drongo was a personal favourite. Despite missing the Siamese Fireback, 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 endemic Germain’s Peacock-Pheasant showed off to us more than once, and stunning Green Peafowl strutted around in the grasslands. The incessant calls of a variety of barbets - the took-tooks of the Lineated Barbets, the rapid tuk-tuk-tuks of the Blue-eared and the chonk-chonks of the Coppersmith barbets - were a constant backdrop as the heat took over. And what a great woodpecker show! In total we saw seven species here, including the scarce Black-and-buff, and the very cute White-browed Piculet. To top everything off, we were able to take advantage of a couple of new feeding stations that have 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, albeit much altered, Ta Nung Valley repaid our efforts with many good birds, the wonderful Grey-crowned Crocias being a particular standout. The crocias made a rapid appearance this year rewarding us with repeated and amazing views. Lang Bian started off with a bang – a stunning Vietnamese Cutia came right in to give us super looks. After a rather hard slog we came back with sightings of Hume’s Treecreeper, Grey-bellied Tesia, White-spectacled Warbler and Blue-winged Minlas. Bi Doup was also productive with more and even better views of Vietnamese Cutia, both Black-headed and Rufous-backed Sibias, Vietnamese Greenfinch and many more. On our last morning as we headed back to Saigon, we detoured to Di Linh to finish off the tour with some superb birds including Orange-headed Thrush, Speckled Piculet and the hoped-for Black-crowned Parrotbill. A most pleasant way to round out our birding!

I’d like to mention the great local people who helped make our tour so enjoyable. Our “fixer” Luan, who accompanied us throughout; he was always pleasant, helpful, capable, and fun to have around. Our 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. Also, thanks to Luke and Matt for the fun company and the great spotting! 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: 25 April 2018