Skip to navigation, or go to main content.

WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative


2023 Narrative

March 20

Our birding tour of Vietnam started in the delightful city of the north, Vietnam’s capital Hanoi. I think everyone had a bit of time to explore this fascinating city, and this evening we all met for our pre tour chat and a very enjoyable dinner.

March 21

Although we had a relatively leisurely start with a late-ish departure from Hanoi (in order to avoid the inevitable and terrible traffic), we arrived at Cuc Phuong to the south of the city with time to begin our birding. A somewhat unexpected sighting of spectacularly fast Brown-backed Needletails was a treat, as were views of the regional endemic, Red-vented Barbets. On this first day we came to grips with a number of species that proved to be seen regularly throughout the tour – Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Puff-throated Babbler, and more. A brief side trip to the amusingly named Primitive Man Cave yielded brief views of another regional endemic, the Annam Limestone Wren-Babbler. Fortunately, much better views lay in our future.  

March 22

Today we explored several areas within the National Park starting with an early morning drive to the far end of the road to Bong Substation. After a light breakfast, we headed to a hide buried in the forest where we had fantastic looks at Japanese and Black-breasted Thrushes, Buff-breasted Babblers, White-rumped Shamas, and best of all Rufous-tailed and White-tailed Robins.

In the afternoon, we walked from our bungalows at Mac Lake down towards the park headquarters in order to visit the wonderful Endangered Primate Rescue Centre and the equally impressive Turtle Conservation Centre.

March 23

Our explorations of Cuc Phuong National Park continued today as we hiked the Limestone Trail which starts at the Bong Substation. There’s no denying that the birding was a little slow but the forest here is just beautiful and our patience was rewarded with outstanding looks at a small group of Annam Limestone Wren-Babblers (the name is longer than the bird!), a simply stunning Red-headed Trogon, handsome Black-naped Monarchs, Rufous-throated Fulvettas, Hainan Blue-Flycatchers, and my personal favourite, the tiny Asian Stubtail. 

An afternoon stroll along the entrance road culminated in a crazy attempt to actually see the super skulky Spot-necked Babblers – something we eventually succeeded in with varying degrees of success!

In the evening we made a short pre dinner walk after I received reports of a hooting bird disturbing their sleep the previous day! We soon lured in a gorgeous pair of Brown Boobooks that kindly allowed us to have close, great views as they defended their territory.

March 24

Taking our leave of Cuc Phuong, we headed towards Van Long, a small reserve tucked into a spectacular area of limestone karst formations and surrounded by verdant green rice paddies. This little remnant of an important habitat protects one of the world’s most endangered primates, the beautiful black-and-white Delacour’s Langur. As we cruised around propelled by hardworking punters, we located a number of species that we were destined not to find anywhere else on our tour. We were delighted to spy a gathering of Garganey, as well as Yellow Bittern, large gatherings of Asian Openbill, many Plain Prinias, and all too brief looks at a pair of White-shouldered Starlings. A stream of migrating Grey-faced Buzzards soaring westwards over the reserve was something of a surprise but a most welcome one.  

After a tasty lunch we proceeded northwards to the otherworldly (read bizarre) hill station town of Tam Dao, which lies to the north of Hanoi. Some preliminary explorations revealed one of the most stunning birds of the trip – a couple of super confiding Golden Babblers. We saw them quite few times later at a few sites but never as beautifully or boldly as these two!

March 25

With the closure of one of the main birding trails at Tam Dao, we only had the so-called Tower Trail at our disposal. On top of this the visibility this morning was amazingly low – the thick fog at times only allowed about 5m viz! Nevertheless, we persisted and to our great delight we soon spotted our main target here, the very attractive Grey Laughingthrush. Some other excellent birds put in appearances, including the impressive Red-billed Blue-Magpie, an elusive Eyebrowed Wren-Babbler, Grey-throated Babblers, and our first Fork-tailed Sunbirds.

March 26

A final exploration of the Tower Trail before our departure turned up a fabulous little Lesser Shortwing but not much else, not surprising given the terrible weather. Leaving Tam Dao, we headed south to Hanoi for a delicious pizza lunch, then headed to the airport for a long wait for our flight to Dong Hoi, our jumping off point for our stay at Phong Nha National Park.

March 27

After an early breakfast we drove into the nearby national park, a spectacular area of towering limestone cliffs, lush green forests and breathtaking caves, where we soon tracked down our most wanted bird here, the restricted-range Sooty Babbler. We then spent quite a bit of time at an unnamed bridge overlooking an expansive tract of beautiful forest where we had some excellent birding with sightings of Oriental Honey-buzzards, Large Hawk-Cuckoo, the first of many Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoos, gorgeous flocks of Scarlet and Ashy Minivets, and Racket-tailed and Ratchet-tailed Treepies. Black-throated Laughingthrushes were a welcome sight, as laughingthrushes always are! In the afternoon we visited Phong Nha Cave, one of the world’s largest caves. Starting with a boat trip past towering stalagmites and stunning stalactites, we then went on foot through another part of the cave for a truly unforgettable experience.

March 28

We spent another morning at the bridge inside the national park where we picked up a few more birds for the trip – Orange-bellied Leafbird, a really nice Rufous-bellied Eagle and Large Woodshrike amongst them. We were soon on the road again though, and we arrived at Bach Ma National Park in the late afternoon where we swapped vehicles from the large bus to two minibuses (one for the luggage) for the drive up the steep road to the summit of these fog-laden mountains. We did have time for a short birding session with dusk fast approaching and enjoyed a superb Silver Pheasant on the quiet road above our accommodation as well as a super cute Collared Owlet. Bottom of Form

March 29

In uncharacteristically fine weather we had some great birding this morning with the added bonus of superb views over the unbroken expanse of montane forest of Bach Ma. Our breakfast was interrupted by a confiding flock of Indochinese Yuhinas, but no one was complaining!

Necklaced Barbets with their incessant calls showed well, as did White-browed Shrike-Babblers (eventually) and cute little Grey-crowned Tits, Mountain Fulvettas, and a furtive White-gorgeted Flycatcher. Best of all was a surprisingly cooperative White’s Thrush feeding in leaf litter on the roadside.

Sadly, it was time to leave Bach Ma and continue our journey, this time to Kham Duc but not before a stop for lunch at Lang Co, after which we picked up White-faced Plover at a nearby beach. We broke the long drive at Kham Duc in preparation for our onward journey to Mang Den tomorrow.

March 30

After an early breakfast we hit the road again, continuing on to the quiet tourist town of Mang Den, stopped at Lo Xo Pass along the way where we found Plumbeous Water-Redstarts and Long-tailed Shrike but not much else. We arrived in Mang Den with some time for some local birding near the town where we picked up Maroon Oriole, Indian Cuckoos, Blue-winged Minla, and a few others.

March 31

Leaving the hotel before dawn this morning, we travelled to the forested area to our north in hopes of Chestnut-eared Laughingthrush at a somewhat neglected hide. After Phong and I set it up, we all stationed ourselves and waited…and waited…and waited. It was not to be, sadly. But a birder’s motto is “never give up”! And to our great delight we later spotted a skulky trio of these rare and fabulous birds on a narrow forest trail. This trail also turned up a Greater Yellownape, Mountain Bulbul, Black-hooded Laughingthrush and, super exciting, Grey-headed Parrotbills! A simple breakfast of noodles at a roadside stall was interrupted by sightings of Jerdon’s Baza and Yellow-cheeked Tits. Returning to our hotel, we enjoyed another delicious dinner and continued our explorations of Vietnamese wine. Haha!

April 1

We wanted to leave early this morning for the long drive to Yok Don, so Phong and I decided to treat everyone to a wonderful Vietnamese specialty, Banh Mi – a sandwich but no ordinary sandwich – which we picked up at a roadside stall and which received high marks.

Our drive to Yok Don was a long one (not helped by our driver getting lost!) but not without some ornithological highlights. As we drove through some seemingly unpromising agricultural areas we spotted a whole swag of excellent birds including Woolly-necked Storks, Black-shouldered Kite, Eastern Marsh Harrier, Little Green Bee-eater, Indochinese Bushlarks, and Amur Stonechats. Fortunately, we arrived at Yok Don in time to get some birding in and, in company with a local ranger Siem, this excellent reserve turned up one of the world’s most spectacular woodpeckers, a raucous family group of Black-headed Woodpeckers, along with Rufous Treepies, many Purple Sunbirds, and Green-billed Malkoha.

April 2

We had a great morning in Yok Don, again with Siem who clearly knows this reserve very well and saw many new birds including one of the best sightings of the trip – a simply stunning pair of White-rumped Falcons. We were treated to the spectacle of the male and the female hunting snails on the forest floor and we came to the conclusion that they must have a nest nearby, although we were unable to find it (and didn’t want to disturb them). We tracked down more woodpeckers (Black-headed, Rufous, Grey-capped Pygmy, Freckle-breasted and both flamebacks), treepies and flycatchers as well as Common Woodshrike, Black-hooded Oriole, and fabulous Burmese Nuthatches, sometimes known as Neglected Nuthatch. We left Yok Don just before lunch which we took at a palatial restaurant in Buon Ma Thuot. The rest of our day was taken up with travel and we arrived in Da Lat in the late afternoon.

April 3

After a typically excellent breakfast under the watchful eye of the fabulous Ms Dzung at our Dreams Hotel, we departed Da Lat for the day and made our way to Bidoup National Park where we spent the day. Our morning was taken up with visits to two hides in the park, one overlooking a small stream and another buried deeper in the forest. These hides were a big highlight of our tour with up close and personal views of some amazing birds, not least amongst them the usually incredibly elusive Collared Laughingthrush. We had two species of forktail, Slaty-backed and the bigger and scarcer Spotted, that showed up repeatedly, as well as a gorgeous pair of Large Niltavas, shy White-tailed Robins, White-browed Scimitar-Babblers, and less sexy birds like Black-browed Fulvetta and Buff-breasted Babbler. But maybe best of all was a confiding Rusty-naped Pitta, one of the hardest of a very difficult and highly sought after group of birds.

April 4

Following another sumptuous breakfast, we headed to Ta Nung Valley where our main quarry was the legendary endemic, the Grey-crowned Crocias. On hearing the calls, we were able to track them down and everyone had fine looks at this great birds, albeit after it gave us quite the runaround! We spent the rest of the morning wandering around this strange theme park/selfie park that was built here a few years ago in what used to be a quiet and remote backwater patch of forest; fortunately, the birds are hanging on and we recorded Hill Prinia, Mrs. Gould’s Sunbirds, Indochinese Barbet, Green-backed Tit, Vietnamese Greenfinch and many more. The afternoon was spent at Datanla Falls where we had our first encounter (of two) with the much wanted and fabulous Vietnamese Cutia.

April 5

Our final day in Da Lat was spent at Mount Lang Bian, a famous birding site and it lived up to expectations. Our jeeps deposited us near the top of the rough mountain road where we took a contour trail that led through pine forest eventually to a valley of evergreen forest. Our going was slow, which was great because it indicated we were seeing many birds. And indeed, we found a sneaky Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Mountain Imperial Pigeon, Clicking Shrike-Babbler, Rufous-capped Babbler, Hume’s Treecreeper, and two more Vietnamese Cutias! Grey-bellied Tesias sang at our feet but seeing them was another matter – sneaky little things.

In the afternoon, some of us made a last Da Lat outing to Ho Tuyen Lam Lake where we picked up a few new trip birds including Osprey and Little Grebe.

April 6

We left very early in order to visit another hide, this time south of Da Lat en route to Cat Tien National Park. We reached our destination, Di Linh, not long after dawn and stationed ourselves at the hide and soon enough Blue Whistling-Thrushes turned up and then much to our delight, a pair of stunning Blue Pittas. Truly gorgeous birds! After an excellent lunch at the Tam Chao Tea Rooms, we proceeded to Cat Tien National Park where we arrived in time for some afternoon birding to kick off our South Vietnam lowland birding experience.

April 7

This morning we visited another hide near the park headquarters, and we couldn’t believe our luck when almost as soon as we settled in a pair of Germain’s Peacock-Pheasants came out and paraded around for us. Usually, we would have to wait a long time for them to show up but our luck continued throughout the morning with guest appearances from Scaly-breasted Partridges, Red Junglefowl (a highly underrated bird), Siberian Blue Robin, Greater Coucal, and to complete the chicken-set, a stunning Siamese Fireback. I couldn’t believe our luck!

Later in the morning, we had a fantastically cooperative Blue-wing Pitta and in the afternoon, Bar-bellied and Blue-rumped Pittas - what a great pitta trifecta.

April 8

After breakfast, our friendly jeep driver deposited us at the Crocodile Lake Trailhead where we elected to walk along the quiet forest road birding as we went. It was a little quiet, but we encountered some excellent birds including Lineated, Coppersmith and Blue-eared Barbets, Oriental Pied Hornbill, a super cute Collared Falconet, Black-and-red and Banded Broadbills, Indochinese Blue-Flycatcher and many more.

The afternoon was spent in the Ta Lai grasslands to the south of the park mainly in pursuit of Green Peafowl which failed to show itself, but we were compensated with noisy Red-wattled Lapwings, Red Collared-Doves, and at last, great views of White-crested Laughingthrushes and Indochinese Green Magpie. A surprise Chinese Francolin was a hot ticket item!

April 9

Cat Tien is well worth many days of birding and our last full day here lived up to expectations as we explored new areas of the park. This morning we were transported to Heavens Rapids Road, named for the rapids on the adjacent Dong Nai River. We turned up many new birds, most notably Black-and-buff Woodpecker, the endemic Grey-faced Tit-Babbler, and one of the most exciting birds in all of Asia, the Great Slaty Woodpecker. Later after birding along the road in the afternoon, we did a night walk but didn’t encounter much except another Brown Boobook.

April 10
This morning we worked the road again, with Laced Woodpeckers and Blue-bearded Bee-eaters amongst the more outstanding birds we encountered. We then packed up and prepared for our drive to Saigon in preparation for our flights home on the 11th. In celebration we sampled some more wine and beers at the top storey open air restaurant of our hotel and most enjoyable it was!

Many thanks to everyone for the excellent company, I personally enjoyed this trip very much thanks mainly to everyone’s enthusiasm and good humour. I’d like to also put in a special thank you to Phong, who worked so hard and was so much fun. Our two drivers were also great and really helped our travels run smoothly (apart from one rather poorly timed April Fool’s joke!). Lastly, sweet Thúc who took over at Cat Tien when Phong had to return to Saigon – poor boy didn’t know what hit him!

                                                                                                                                                                                             - Susan Myers

Created: 17 May 2023