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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative


2019 Narrative

At the end of our latest our Vietnam tour I’m reflecting on almost 25 years of birding there!  This country is so varied and interesting and every place we visit is very different. The birding can be challenging but is always very rewarding. This year we had excellent birding with some memorable experiences, as always.

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. 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 and Orange-headed 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 made a brief exploration of the so-called Primitive Cave, which revealed the much hoped for Limestone Wren-Babblers, ever inquisitive and active. A very responsive Limestone Leaf Warbler was a very welcome added bonus. 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, Red-headed Trogons, little groups of Red-throated Fulvettas, some fun Spot-throated Babblers, and that masterful songster, the White-tailed Flycatcher. Heading out into the open grassland areas we found a cute pair of little Pied Falconets 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 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.

From here, 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! The town is still becoming increasingly popular due to its proximity to Ha Noi and although access to the forest has been restricted we were still able to enjoy some good birding. We found our targets – Grey Laughingthrush and Short-tailed Parrotbill on the Tower Steps, and Chestnut Bulbul on the quieter road on the outer edges of the town. While we had a number of good sightings, the highlights were undoubtedly the garrulous group of Grey Laughingthrushes and the very tiny Short-tailed Parrotbill cavorting in the bamboo. 

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. Our morning at the bridge was particularly memorable with so much bird activity it was hard to tear ourselves away! A couple of neat Asian Emerald Cuckoos were greeted excitedly, as were gorgeous Silver-breasted Broadbills and a sneaky Slaty-legged Crake, expertly spotted by Chris. There are over 300 caves here totalling over 126 km in length. In between searching for the endemic and charismatic Sooty Babbler amongst others, we took out some time to visit to the Phong Nha 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 spent an afternoon explorating 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 drove directly to the summit in more fine weather and enjoyed a wonderful morning of birding, the highlight of which was a pair the recently renamed Indochinese Wren-Babbler (formerly Short-tailed Scimitar-Babbler) that showed off so very nicely for us. We also tracked down more Ratchet-tailed Treepies, 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.

At Lo Xo Pass the birding couldn’t have been better! We tracked down the White-winged Magpie again with even better looks this time. Other highlights were our only Indian Rollers of the trip, some Black-winged Cuckooshrikes, and our first Black-hooded Laughingthrushes. But, of course, the icing on the cake was the pair of Black-crowned Barwings, which were our reason for stopping here. We were able to enjoy some great looks at this very restricted and scarce endemic.

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 nearby forest in search of some neat forest birds. A number of great sightings ensued as we managed to pin down Pale Blue Flycatcher, Maroon Oriole, Grey-crowned Tit, more Black-hooded Laughingthrushes 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 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 pair of Great Hornbills was a personal favourite. We had an excellent trip for the galliformes – Scaly-breasted Partridges scuttled around the forest floor showing well on one occasion, an outrageous Siamese Fireback, Red Junglefowl seemed to be everywhere this year, the endemic Germain’s Peacock-Pheasant showed off to us, 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 six species here, including the scarce and highly sought-after Pale-headed, 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 very cheeky Indochinese Ground Squirrels. 

Leaving Cat Tien, we dropped into the Di Linh Pass area with great results! How can you go wrong with Siberian Thrush, Indochinese Green Magpie, Orange-breasted Laughingthrush, Black-crowned Parrotbill and the breathtaking Blue Pitta?!

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, Ho Tuyen Lam lake, 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, while both Black-headed and Rufous-backed Sibias showed up on cue.

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 Grey-bellied Tesia, White-spectacled Warbler and Blue-winged Minlas. A frustrating group of Collared Laughingthrushes were very welcome but not everyone was able to get onto them, they are so secretive albeit loud!

Bi Doup was also productive starting off in spectacular style with a trio of cute little ground dwellers – the Pygmy Cupwing, Lesser Shortwing and Grey-bellied Tesia cavorting around us as we hid in the undergrowth. And the day was topped off by a very welcome group of somewhat more confiding Collared Laughingthrushes, surely one of the most attractive of a very attractive group of birds.

Although our birding around HTL Lake was interrupted by rain more than once, we did have some great success with Slender-billed Oriole, Vietnamese Greenfinch and Vietnamese Crossbill and many more.

I’d like to mention the great local people who helped make our tour so enjoyable. Our “fixer” Phong, who accompanied us throughout; he was always pleasant, helpful, capable, and fun to have around. Our drivers in the north, centre and south especially Tông 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 logistical arrangements. Also, thanks to you all for the fun company and especially for the great spotting! 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: 24 April 2019