Vietnam - November 12-16, 2006

Published by Nguyen Hoai Bao (birdvietnam AT gmail.com)

Participants: David Richardson, Nguyen Hoai Bao

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I just completed a marvelous birding adventure in Southern Vietnam, in the Tan Phu Forest and at Cat Tien National Park. My guide was Nguyen Hoai Bao, of Vietnam Wildtour Company http://www.vietnamwildtour.com . Bao teaches at the Vietnam National University in Ho Chi Minh City, but finds time to guide many people on birding tours of Vietnam. He was an excellent guide and a lot of fun to be with.

In five days of birding we managed to see 120 species of birds, many of which were new life birds for me, in spite of several birding experiences in China and Korea. The two areas covered were trips that Bao takes from Ho Chi Minh City. The Tan Phu forest is about a two and a half hour drive north of the city and is usually covered in a two day trip. Cat Tien is another hour and a half farther north and is usually covered in three days of birding. I combined the two trips in habitat that is quite similar, low evergreen large leafed trees yet each yielded unique birds as well as a lot of duplication.

Lodging was good. The rooms had air conditioning and mosquito nets, except for the last night at Crocodile Lake. A shower after each day’s birding was welcome. Sometimes there was opportunity for more than one per day. Food was typical Vietnamese fare which always offers boiled soup (pho), plenty of fish and rice. Bottled water, soda, and beer were available. As long as one is careful about raw veggies there is no problem with eating. I enjoyed each meal and stayed healthy the entire trip.

Our last night was at Crocodile Lake which is a more rustic experience, but well worth the overnight stay because of the great birding in the early morning around the lake. Bao provides leech socks for the walk through the damp forest. As long as one is careful there is not much problem. We had no other pests on the trip. I was quite surprised, as the trip had fewer nuisance bugs than one would have on any birding trip in the Southern U.S.A. Of course this is the dry season. Only once did we have any rain of consequence and that came at sunset while we ate dinner.

We left Ho Chi Minh City on Sunday morning the 12th of November at 5:30 A.M. After breakfast at a restaurant along the road, we began our birding at 8:30 A.M. in the Tan Phu forest. The road we had intended to drive was under repair so we began the day with an introduction to birding in Vietnam along a wide rather muddy road. It was a good place to start because of birds seen and heard at the forest margin. So many birds in the deep forest are heard more often than seen, although before we were finished with the trip we managed to see all but six of the birds that we identified also by call and song.

The Tan Phu forest is a forest restoration project. Most of the trees are post 1975, but there is a great variety. We walked about 5 miles to a small village and then another mile or so to a man-made lake which has hot pools beside it. There are several cabanas along the way to provide for shelter, shade and rest. They made excellent birding blinds as well. The return trip was not a problem because we hired two motorcycles to take us back to the car.

Highlights of the day were the opportunity to sort through the many bulbuls. These birds can often be confusing in their dullness, but here we had a unique set of birds which provided excellent sightings, the Stripe-throated, the Streak-eared, Grey-eyed, Ochraceous, and Black-crested were everywhere. Also delightful because of their frequency were the many Sunbirds: Purple-throated, Olive-backed, and Crimson. These are gems of spectacular color amid the flowers and trees. Little Spider Hunters worked the flowers of the coconut trees. A bird that competed with them for beauty was the gorgeous Blue-winged Leafbird.

In the small village we saw our only Vernal Hanging Parrot. In spite of its bright color it can easily disappear in an acacia tree. It truly hangs upside down much of the time as it feeds. Occasionally the Common Flameback woodpecker would call and display his beauty on a tall bamboo or coconut tree. We had our first sightings of the Oriental Pied Hornbill as it glided to and from several trees near the lake. Several forest accipiters darted through the trees and across the road, the Shikra and Japanese Sparrowhawk. We were to have nice views of the big Crested Serpent Eagle too, although the best viewing of this bird was to come a few days later at Crocodile Lake.

We ended the day sitting in an open pasture awaiting the many birds that tend to display themselves clearly and often perch as the sun goes down. This was to be a ritual every evening and very productive. This evening we had great views of the noisy White-crested Laughingthrushes; a Dollarbird perched prominently for us as did a pair of Green Imperial Pigeons; and Greater Racket-tailed Drongos moved about the perimeter of the meadow. The Greater Coucal called from the thicket. This bird was often elusive during the day, but the next morning we had clear open views of it on the ground near the road as we also did at Cat Tien.

A mysterious all black swift swept over the meadow regularly. It was unfamiliar to Bao and our best opinion after much study of the field guides is that it was a Dark-rumped Swift, a bird not recorded before in Vietnam. It was a reminder that birding in Vietnam is still not well documented. A few days later we were treated with another new bird, a Blue-capped Rock Thrush. Bao got many good photographs of this bird along the trail to Crocodile Lake. He carries an excellent, telephoto camera and it is very helpful with birds that are quick to disappear in the thick forest. It’s good to get an instant view of the bird on the digital camera and see the field marks that were missed as the bird flitted around.

The next day began at sunrise, 5:30 A.M.. We were near the previous forest but we changed habitat, going to a drier area amid large monoliths of granite and lots of volcanic rock. This was more of a scrub forest surrounding groves of mango and cashew trees. The Greater Coucal was our first bird. At a huge rock, about the size of Morro Rock in California, we had great views of the Blue Rock Thrush and several flybys of a Peregrine Falcon. In the scrub area and bamboo that bordered the groves we got many quick views of those most nondescript of all birds, the prinias, Plain, Grey-breasted and Rufescent. Lots of patience rewarded me with a quick view of a Striped Tit Babbler, one of the many elusive babblers that we would hear all week long but seldom see. Green-billed Malkohas put in good shows for us, often showing their long tail before anything else. A Verditer Flycatcher, one of many beautiful fly catchers of the trip foraged on the edge of some damp forest.

By 11:00 A.M. we were driving through the farmland headed toward Cat Tien. Big blue and olive Indian Rollers sat along the fields or flew overhead. A Cat Tien we had to leave our SUV and take a small boat across the Saigon River to accommodations for the next two days. The headquarters for the park provides the only lodging along an excellent cement road which runs about five miles each way along the river. The road is only one lane wide, enough to provide transportation in the four wheel drive trucks and jeeps available at the park. Four wheel drive is essential when the road ends, for the road, even in the dry season, is heavily rutted and impassible for anything else. The cement road makes easy bird watching for anyone wishing to avoid leeches or other critters.

Late afternoon birding offered many great sightings of birds perched high on trees and bamboo, giving excellent scope views and good photos: Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters, Lineated Barbet, Blue-eared Barbet, Tickel’s and Hainan Flycatchers, Red-breasted Parakeets. On the way back to the settlement we saw five Great-eared Nightjars in flight over the volleyball court.

The night was just as exciting. An Asian Barred Owlet flew into our dining room and flitted from one ceiling fan to another. None of the views the next few nights on the wires were nearly as good for identifying and photographing this bird as was the twenty minutes inside in good light. We took an evening ride in the open-backed truck, seeing numerous mammals such as Civet Cats and Shamba Deer. Our spot light revealed the bright reflecting eyes of a Long-tailed Nighthawk, which remained quietly perched beside the road as we examined it.

November 14, our first full day at Cat Tien focused on a walk through the thick forest to the Bird Swamp, a flatland covered by muddy water. It had many egrets and herons plus Red-wattled Lapwings. In trees at the edge of the water were Racket-tailed Treepie, three Drongos, Black, Spangled and Bronzed. The most exciting bird of this trip, however, was in the deep forest when Bao flushed a Blue-winged Pita. It didn’t provide much of a look, but its beautiful blue with black and white patched wings was unmistakable.

After mid-afternoon naps we took bicycles down the road to the grasslands. A large fruiting tree yielded flocks of two species of Green Pigeons, Pompadour and Large-billed. A Coppersmith Barbet fed among them as did Arctic Warblers. This flat area gives the appearance of a savannah, with dikes, channels and ponds. Walking through the shoulder high reeds and sedges, we made our way to a viewing tower. Thunder and lightning threatened in the distance but the birdlife was evident everywhere: Common and Blue-eared Kingfishers, Cinnamon Bitterns, Rufous Woodpecker, Wooly-necked Storks, and all the herons and egrets. Three female Green Peafowl flew from the field below the tower. A Pied Harrier worked the field flushing many birds before it. As we started to leave two wild pigs paraded across the flats below us. The evening chorus of Babblers and the red sky made the bike ride back a wonderful experience.

November 15 was our day to hike the 5 km through wet old growth forest to Crocodile Lake, a large lake aptly named for its residents, their eyes shown like little flashlights at night when we swept the floodlight across the lake. The hike in was superb for deep forest birds most of which evaded our efforts to see them, but we did get some very rewarding birds, the Blue-capped Rock Thrush and the white morph of the Asian Paradise Flycatcher. The long white tail of the flycatcher was spectacular in the thick trees. Both birds were new to Bao and he got photos of both.

At Crocodile Lake we climbed to the top viewing tower which yielded a number of birds feeding along the shore: Purple Swamp Hens, White-breasted Waterhens, Lesser Whistling Ducks, and Grey-headed Lapwings. Four or five Ospreys dove regularly for fish. Crocodile Lake facilities sit high above the water with connecting boardwalks which make birding easy and free from the nuisance leeches of the forest. A nearby 100 yard boardwalk spanning a shallow creek with thick bamboo also provides excellent birding. Germain’s Peacock Pheasants are very noisy here but very difficult to see. I only got one quick glimpse as I flushed one on the trail. We had already seen several Siamese Firebacks and Red Junglefowl on the roadway and the walk in, but the biggest mystery bird of the trip for me was an all black pheasant with bright red face. At first I thought it to be a Fireback but I realized it had neither grey nor green feathers, just black.

In the afternoon we walked the edge of the lake flushing a Purple Heron, Pintail Snipes Black-Hooded Oriole, Common Iora, Stork-billed Kingfisher, and a Siberian Robin. By dusk we were hearing thunder in the distance so we retreated to the tower for dinner and a great show of nature’s power, an explosive thunder and lightning storm that provided a great light show across the lake and an hour of torrential rain which was well repelled by our thatch roof.

The final morning at the lake started slowly because of the heavy fog following the night’s rain. But before we left nearly everything we hoped to see put in an appearance, a Baillon’s Crake, Scarlet-backed Flycatcher, Crested Serpent Eagle, Vinous-breasted Starlings, and Grey Wagtail. In the tree a few feet away from the tower a Blue-throated Flycatcher showed itself and several Ashy Minivets foraged with their interesting flight pattern and elongated tails. The biggest treat was the male Green Peafowl which came out to forage at about 8:30 A.M. This is one of the real gems of the forest and a great treat for any birdwatcher, novice or expert. Its long tail, top knot, wattle and graceful feathers of emerald, yellow, blue and green are an aesthete’s dream.

As we were putting on our leech socks for the trip back, two Great Hornbills glided into the trees across the lake. Before we finished putting on our boots, storks began to circle above. The two which had only been birds of flight on the previous days, settled down along the lake for great views, the Wooly-necked and the Lesser Adjutant. Both birds are threatened or endangered birds in our world and they were a great way to end the trip.

Birdwatching Tour Organizer

Species Lists

1. Red Jungle Fowl
2. Siamese Fireback
3. Germain’s Peacock Pheasant
4. Green Peafowl
5. Lesser Whistling Duck
6. Rufous Woodpecker
7. Laced Woodpecker
8. Common Flameback
9. Lineated Barbet
10. Green-eared Barbet
11. Blue-eared Barbet
12. Coppersmith Barbet
13. Oriental Pied Hornbill
14. Great Hornbill
15. Orange-breasted Trogon
16. Indian Roller
17. Dollarbird
18. Common Kingfisher
19. Blue-eared Kingfisher
20. Stork-billed Kingfisher
21. White-throated Kingfisher
22. Chestnut-headed Bee-eater
23. Green-billed Malkoha
24. Greater Coucal
25. Lesser Coucal
26. Vernal Hanging Parrot
27. Red-breasted Parakeet
28. Dark-rumped Swift
29. Asian Barred Owlet
30. Great-eared Nightjar
31. Large-tailed Nightjar
32. Spotted Dove
33. Red Collared Dove
34. Pompadour Green Pigeon
35. Thick-billed Green Pigeon
36. Green Imperial Pigeon
37. White-breasted Waterhen
38. Baillon’s Crake
39. Purple Swamphen
40. Pintail Snipe
41. Bronze-winged Jacana
42. Grey-headed Lapwing
43. Red-wattled Lapwing
44. Osprey
45. Oriental Honey-buzzard
46. Black-shouldered Kite
47. Crested Serpent Eagle
48. Pied Harrier
49. Shikra
50. Japanese Sparrow Hawk
51. Mountain Hawk Eagle
52. Peregrine Falcon
53. Darter
54. Little Egret
55. Grey Heron
56. Purple Heron
57. Great Egret
58. Intermediate Egret
59. Cattle Egret
60. Chinese Pond Heron
61. Little Heron
62. Cinnamon Bittern
63. Wooly-necked Stork
64. Lesser Adjutant
65. Blue-winged Pita
66. Blue-winged Leafbird
67. Brown Shrike
68. Racket-tailed Treepie
69. Ashy Woodswallow
70. Black-naped Oriole
71. Black-hooded Oriole
72. Ashy Minivet
73. Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike
74. Black Drongo
75. Ashy Drongo (two subspecies)
76. Bronzed Drongo
77. Spangled Drongo
78. Greater Racket-tailed Drongo
79. Black-naped Monarch
80. Asian Paradise Flycatcher (white morph)
81. Common Iora
82. Great Iora
83. Blue-capped Rock Thrush
84. Blue Rock Thrush
85. Asian Brown Flycatcher
86. Red-throated Flycatcher
87. Verditer Flycatcher
88. Hainan Flycatcher
89. Blue-throated Flycatcher
90. Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher
91. Siberian Blue Robin
92. Oriental Magpie Robin
93. White-rumped Shama
94. Common Stonechat
95. Pied Bushchat
96. Vinous-breasted Starling
97. Hill Myna
98. Barn Swallow
99. Black-crested Bulbul
100. Sooty-headed Bulbul
101. Stripe-throated Bulbul
102. Streak-eared Bulbul
103. Ochraceous Bulbul
104. Grey-eyed Bulbul
105. Rufescent Prinia
106. Grey-breasted Prinia
107. Arctic Warbler
108. Common Tailorbird
109. Yellow-browed Warbler
110. White-crested Laughingthrush
111. Scaly-crowned Babbler
112. Striped Tit Babbler
113. Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker
114. Purple-throated Sunbird
115. Olive-backed Sunbird
116. Crimson Sunbird
117. Little Spiderhunter
118. Streaked Spiderhunter
119. Eurasian Tree Sparrow
120. Grey Wagtail