South Vietnam - April 2007

Published by Low Bing Wen Albert (halmaherastandardwing AT

Participants: Albert Low, Simon Allen, Mike Catsis


This is the summary of an extremely successful 10 day foray into the traditional S.Vietnam circuit consisting of visits to sites like Cat Tien, Di Linh & Da Lat. I was accompanied by Mike Catsis & Simon Allen for most of the duration, both of whom excellent birders & travel companions. The tour was put together by local birding guru Richard Craik, who joined us during the Di Linh-Da Lat portion of the trip and was instrumental in locating the highland endemics thanks to his knowledge of the local stakeouts. In all, 250 species were recorded and I managed 38 lifers including all the highland endemics & recently split ones as well as 4 out of 5 of the Cat Tien ground specialities.

I hope this will be of help to anyone intending to visit the area and if you have any further queries, please do not hesitate to drop me an email and I will try to answer them.

Overall, the weather was excellent for birding though it got very hot by late morning especially in the lowlands where you could literally bird the period from 530am-10am then sleep for the rest of the day without much loss (obviously we never did that). It was slightly better in the highlands where we found late afternoon birding to be rather productive. We had a very brief shower in Cat Tien on our last evening but overall it was sunny with clear skies throughout although it was occasionally cloudy & overcast in the highlands. There were ZERO leeches encountered during the trip at all in the forest trails and although there was alot of walking involved, the sightings usually made the effort worthwhile.

1. Cat Tien National Park ( 30 Mar 07- 04 Apr 07)

Summary: Very hard work here thanks to the heat, but it was extremely pleasant birding the trails due to the lack of leeches although there were a few mosquitoes. Best birding period was from 530am-10am. Thereafter not much took place for the rest of the day as a whole. I spent an extra 1.5 days here before the rest arrived. A small achievement here personally was seeing all the ground specialites without the use of playback (save for the ONP,which we only heard). None of the ground birds were calling enthusiastically during our stay here.

Main Highlights:

1. Bar-bellied Pitta - This was surprisingly a difficult bird to find.James Eaton, who just finished a tour here before we arrived, reported 11 in 2 hrs at Bau Sau Trail. I had seen a male on my first morning in the Lager Trail but only because he hopped onto the trail and allowed the Sun to illuminate his emerald green head & black mask, allowing a full view for about 5-8 seconds before hopping away. In Bau Sau, we only heard 1 calling & encountered 3 birds by silently listening for the rustling of leaves. Mike had to sweat for this one, seeing them only on the way back to the road. When Simon went to Bau Sau alone the next day, he only encountered 1 female just before he got on the jeep at the trail entrance. Obviously subject to
some breeding movements.

2. Blue-rumped Pitta - Ironically, this was the easier of the 2 species of pitta I had targeted. Thanks to the tip-off by Andy Mears & Matthew Rodgers pertaining to seeing a pair in Lager Trail for 2 consecutive years, I managed to find the same pair on the first morning a few bends further up the trail from where they had been reported around the big rock. Mike & Simon both managed looks of them too on their first forays, with me showing Mike the pair within an hour of his arrival & Simon nailing it the following afternoon. The male of the *soror *is a gorgeous bird which the illustrations do little justice too. Their habit of freezing when alarmed and taking short hops meant that once you spotted them, you could spend an hour or more watching them readily (which was what I did on the 1st day).None seen on Bau Sau although killer views of the pair at Lager Trail were quite enough. A stunning male hopped across the Dac Lua Trail as well.

3.Green Peafowl - A brilliant save for the group. We had opted not to stay at Croc Lake so this was always going to be difficult. We went to watchtower C-3 on the western boundary of the park as James & some of the locals had reported them there recently. I stayed there for 2 afternoons and saw nothing, although the Swede Jonas Nordin did flush a male along an embankment here on the first afternoon but only he saw it. However, locals had reported them on the road to Dac Lua in the early morning and on our last morning as we were en-route to Dac Lua all of us observed a brilliant male perched in a tall tree overlooking the entrance of the Bird Lake Trail basking in the early morning sun. It stood there for about 5 minutes before flying deeper into the forest.

4. Germain's Peacock Pheasant - Stunning views of this stunning bird. Mike & I only encountered 1 pair along the Bau Sau Trail at the base of the first steep slope during our visit to the Bau Sau Trail. I initially spotted the dark shape just 10m off the trail and notified Mike. Thereafter we had stunning views of a pair of these birds as they foraged quietly in the area. They exchanged soft, almost inaudible coo'ing calls while scratching leaves in search of prey. After about 5 minutes or so of solid views, the pair faded into the forest. None were heard during our stay in CT otherwise. Simon had a pair by the main road & another in the Bau Sau Trail the following day.

5. Pale-headed Woodpecker - Surprisingly vocal during our time here and pairs were encountered almost every morning. There were at least 2 very vocal pairs in the bamboo forest around the bridge just after the Lager Trail entrance. On my first morning, I taped a pair in for some great views. I had even better views with Mike on our last morning when at least 4 birds perched exposed in bamboo calling to each other. A pair was also taped in at Dac Lua but gave only brief views.

6. Orange-necked Partridge - A pair responded to tape & came very close although frustratingly could not be convinced to come down to the base of the bamboo hill they were calling from at Dac Lua. The call stills rings loudly in my ears although there is apparently a spot along Heaven's Rapids Trail beyond the rapids where Birdquest & others have seen them in. The only major dip from Cat Tien.

7. White-rumped Falcon - HUGE contender for my bird of the trip. No trip report ever mentioned this bird in Cat Tien although local guides know of it and its in the Park List too.. On my first morning alone, I had opted to return early to HQ for breakfast at around 9am. As I crossed the gate into the HQ, a high pitched whistle caught my attention and I noted a smallish raptor with a long tail flying low just above the buildings. Thankfully, it chose to circle the HQ building and as I steadily watched the white rump, greyish wings & blackish coverts I realised the magnitude of the sighting. To cap off this brilliant show. The lone male actually perched briefly in some of the bare emergents behind the HQ for a while before sadly attracting the attention of some drongos which flushed it. Obviously not seen again.

Other Highlights Here:

8.Siamese Fireback - Commonly encountered during morning forays along the main road.

9.Scaly-breasted Partridge - Common again with parties foraging by the roadside even.

10.Golden-crested Myna - 2 birds, probably the same pair, seen on a bare emergent overlooking the Lager Trail on 2 mornings.

2. Deo Nui San Pass, Di Linh (04 Apr 07- 05 Apr 07)

Summary: This is an extremely productive birding area & frankly 1 day isn't really enough to appreciate the area. It is severely under threat from quarrying & logging activities & there is now a logging track that has destroyed the stream habitat in the trail behind the Tea Stall but has opened up the forest there considerably. We stayed at the very cozy Anh Kiet Hotel in Di Linh, which was 30 mins drive away and cost 100k Dong for a single room. We birded the road from Km 78 Marker all the way to the Tea Stall on our only morning here and found it to be the most birdy of all the sites we visited.

Main Highlights:

1. Orange-breasted Laughingthrush- The best place in the circuit to see this endemic and it did not disappoint. A lone bird responded quietly to tape for a while and came in to the understorey just at the start of the logging track after the stream on 04 Apr at 5pm. Thereafter, it perched on a vine for about 1-2 mins and broke out into a remarkable song. My vote for songster of the trip with simply quite amazing vocals which were almost human-like. Great views were had and you could even see the bright orange breast of the bird streaked with black inflate and deflate of sorts as it sang. The following morning, a couple gave brief views just before the trail crosses the stream.

2. Red-vented Barbet- A pair observed flying into a fruiting tree along the logging track after the stream were kind enough to fly into a dead tree and perch in the open for great views. The following morning, rather common on along the road with several observed although there were a lot of fruiting trees there.

3. White-cheeked Laughingthrush - This is to me a beautiful trash bird. There were dozens of noisy parties along the road from KM 78 to the Tea Stall, and they were not skulkers and gave great views generally as they foraged actively in mixed flocks. Others were seen in Datanla Falls & Ta Nung Valley as well later on.

4. Black-hooded Laughingthrush - Not as common as the preceding species. Several parties were observed in the trail behind the tea stall where they gave decent views thru windows in the dense understorey. Also seen at Ho Tuyen Lam in Da Lat.

5. Red-billed Scimitar-babbler - At least 1 pair first observed by Simon on the logging track in the late morning near the stream. Thereafter 1 bird responded strongly to tape and came in high in the canopy and gave some great views as it circled the tape.

Other Highlights:

6. Black-capped Parrotbill - This recent split from the Grey-headed now enjoys full species status as a Vietnam endemic which is justifiable as it looks rather different from the Grey-headed elsewhere. Although a mixed species bird, it seemed nowhere common although 1 gave great views along the road. It was later seen in Ho Tuyen Lam, but nowhere else.

7. Indochinese Green Magpie - This extremely shy & wary cracker was hard to see well. A very brief encounter along the Tea Stall Trail on the first afternoon was bettered by a tape responsive pair along the road the following morning. The killer was however at Ta Nung Valley, where on our first afternoon 1 was observed on the ground next to the stream at the forest edge foraging for food. Poorly illustrated in Robson's book, the exclamation " Oh My God" uttered by Simon when he saw the bird on the ground just about sums up the brilliant views of this beautiful and shy species.

8. Grey-crowned Tits - Another split from the Black-throated Tit gave Vietnam this endemic. Very common in mixed flocks around pines & were seen in several places including the road here as well as in the pines at Mount Lang Biang, Ho Tuyen Lam & Ta Nung Valley.

9. Vietnamese Greenfinch -2-3 seen in a roadside pine mixed flock here. Also seen in Ta Nung, Lang Biang & Ho Tuyen Lam.

3. Da Lat ( 05 Apr 07 - 08 Apr 07)

Summary: The tourist magnet of Da Lat is also a magnet for birders because of the multitude of sites close to the city. We stayed in the cosy Dreams Hotel which was manned by a very friendly elderly lady who spoke fluent english and knew all about the behaviour of birders that she dutifully prepared breakfast at 5am for us every day. The hotel also provided free, albeit a little slow, internet for guests. Overplaying has become a problem for the Collared Laughingthrush & Grey-crowned Crocias in traditional areas. The fact that we arrived after several of the birding tours had just left was not much help. Room rates here were USD 12 a night for single rooms which had cable channels like Star Sports (EPL Action) & Discovery Channel.

Main Highlights:

1. Grey-crowned Crocias - Common In Ta Nung Valley with several groups heard but hardly any were interested in tape. On our first afternoon here on 04 Apr, 1 group of 4-6 finally became curious enough to land in an emergent close to the road where they gave decent views. No other groups came in during our time here despite hearing quite a few. The killer views were at Ho Tuyen Lam where a group of 6 in degraded forest responded energetically to the tape and gave excellent views as they landed in the low canopy and looked around. They appear to fan their tails frequently in the presence of 1 another and looked like streaked Burmese Shrikes!

2. Collared Laughingthrush - Easily 1 of the most beautiful laughers out there but remarkably hard to see. It took us 5 long hours to finally get views of a group of 3-5 feeding in some very dense understorey near the summit trail campsite. Before that there were numerous groups heard and some close ones but none really came in to tape. Even after seeing them, it was like fixing a jigsaw puzzle as you could never quite get a full body view of the bird.

3. Yellow-billed Nuthatch - A surprise find of 2 birds in a mixed flock along the Buffalo Track @ Lang Biang was only the 2nd record on the mountain for Richard & turned out to be a master-stroke as we failed to find it in Ho Tuyen Lam which is normally associated with this mixed flock species.

Other Highlights:

4. Grey-bellied Tesia - Common on Lang Biang with several heard, eventually taped 1 in for nice views at the summit trail camp site.

5. Vietnamese Cutia - A pair seen well in a mixed flock at the summit trail campsite, differs from the Himalayan Cutia as it has a completely barred belly.

6. Black-crowned Fulvetta - This split from the Rufous-winged Fulvetta was relatively common in the mixed flocks around the summit trail campsite.