The 22-23rd January were travelling days. With our travelling companions Carol & Phil we took a taxi into Dalat and caught another day sleeping bus on the slightly queasy, but extremely scenic winding mountain road to Nha Trang, taking a little over three hours. There we parted company again as they were flying on north, but we were to fulfil another dream and take the sleeper train. Sometimes unavoidable but we prefer not to use air travel where ever possible. We dropped off our luggage at the station and took a taxi to the beach to await the evening departure. Birdlife was sparse both on the journey and at the coast.
News of the virus sweeping Wuhan in China had been reaching us for a while now and from now on it would be ever present in our minds. This was the first time we were temperature checked and masks were becoming ever more prevalent. The packed train left at around 8pm and we were sharing a 6 berth compartment with a young family who soon settled down and we had a pretty good night.
Red-billed Starling Sturnus sericeus
A 6:30am arrival in Da Nang meant plenty of time to find a cafe and have a leisurely breakfast before sharing a cab with a couple from Denmark for the 45 minute drive to the historic city of Hoi An. It was still quite early so we dropped off bags at the hotel and went to explore the old town. Among the old building and small parks were the odd Plaintive Cuckoo, Blue Rock Thrush, Asian Brown Flycatcher and a small flock of Red-billed Starlings, with the usual Coppersmith Barbets, Red Collared Doves, Common Tailorbirds, Scarlet-backed Flowerpeckers, Barn Swallows, Tree Sparrows and Grey Wagtail.
Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitarius
We liked Hoi An a lot and stayed a full week, much of it in the company of Phil & Carol, right through the impressive Chinese New Year celebrations. There were two main areas of interest from a wildlife point of view. The first a small patch of dune habitat and farmland across a frankly alarming metal scooter bridge on the northern edge of Cam Kim island south of the town and a region of rice paddies on the northern edge. There was a third area visited by an America birder I met but I failed to find a way past the security guard on the only entrance. It's an area partially cleared for development on the SW of the island of Cam Nam and he reported a 300 strong flock of Yellow-breasted Buntings there - probably international significant numbers! He also had Watercock and an Indian Nightjar here among other things and it was probably the best habitat close to the town. I recommend using a bicycle to reach all three areas.
Black-faced Bunting Emberiza spodocephala
The Cau Cam Kim dunes were on an undeveloped finger just across the metal bridge and produced one of the best birds of the trip; a Black-faced Bunting. Tantalising views of a skulking Luscinia/Calliope turned out to be a Bluethroat. Other good birds here included Lesser Coucal, Racket-tailed Treepie, Yellow Bittern, Long-tailed Shrike and Stejneger's Stonechat. A Quail or Buttonquail species flushed from short grass here remained stubbornly impossible to relocate.
Bluethroat Luscinia svecica
Lesser Coucal Centropus bengalensis
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach
White-browed Crake Amaurornis cinerea
The paddies were very active with many waterbirds. As well as the expected Yellow Bittern, Pond Herons and all four Egrets there were Pin-tailed Snipe, Little Ringed Plover, Greenshank, Wood Sandpiper, White-browed Crake, Racket-tailed Treepie, Black-browed Reed Warbler and with some effort managed to get brief views of the Pallas' Grasshopper Warblers wintering there but not the reported Lanceolated Warblers.
While there we took one organised excursion; a rare treat for budget travellers like us. We were bussed for just over an hour out to my 74th UNESCO World Heritage site; My Son Sanctuary (pronounced "mee son" to rhyme with "gone" as our effusive guide was at pains to point out). Occupied by the Champa Kingdom for about 1000 years (4th-14th century AD), at one time it was a complex of 70 Hindu temples but was mostly destroyed during one week of the Vietnam war.
Orange-headed Thrush Geokichla citrina
Being well out in the countryside there was the potential for some good birding and sure enough I found an Orange-headed thrush almost straight away on a track close to the toilets near the entrance and got a terrible photo in the gloomy conditions. Unfortunately, despite having some time to explore away from the party, that was just about it apart from common birds. 2 Green-eared Barbets showing well and a couple of Swinhoe's White-eyes were just about the only things of note. By 1pm we had all been herded back on the bus for a half hour drive to a dock where we took a leisurely boat ride including a basic lunch. Another half hour along the river and we were back in the old town of Hoi An. Birdlife was also fairly limited on the river with some Grey Herons and Greenshanks providing the only distraction. A very wet day but actually not a bad trip, with a very entertaining guide, costing about £10 a head including the entry fee and lunch.
The total combined list for this week came to 59 species including four lifers.
Rock Dove Red Collared Dove Spotted Dove Zebra Dove Greater Coucal Lesser Coucal Plaintive Cuckoo Germain's Swiftlet Asian Palm-Swift White-browed Crake Black-winged Stilt Little Ringed Plover Pin-tailed Snipe Common Sandpiper Common Greenshank Wood Sandpiper Yellow Bittern Grey Heron Great White Egret Intermediate Egret Little Egret Cattle Egret Chinese Pond Heron White-throated Kingfisher Green Bee-eater Coppersmith Barbet Green-eared Barbet Common Iora Black Drongo Brown Shrike Long-tailed Shrike Racket-tailed Treepie Common Tailorbird Yellow-bellied Prinia Plain Prinia Zitting Cisticola Black-browed Reed Warbler Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler Barn Swallow Sooty-headed Bulbul Stripe-throated Bulbul Streak-eared Bulbul Yellow-browed Warbler Dusky Warbler Swinhoe's White-eye Red-billed Starling Orange-headed Thrush Asian Brown Flycatcher Oriental Magpie-Robin Bluethroat Blue Rock Thrush Siberian Stonechat Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker Scaly-breasted Munia House Sparrow Eurasian Tree Sparrow Grey Wagtail Paddyfield Pipit Black-faced Bunting
If we were going to see any more of Vietnam we were going to have to leave Cat Tien so we tore ourselves away and took a 4 hour daytime sleeper bus north to the highland town of Dalat, then a taxi to Tuyen Lam lake. Our accommodation here was ludicrously cheap but ridiculously plush in a newly built villa on one of the many developments scattered around the lake. Several of these had been abandoned leaving unfinished shells nestled in the surrounding forest and others, like this one were still under construction. There were no shops here, no public transport and only a handful of restaurants.
Grey Bushchat (female) Saxicola ferreus
Burmese Shrike Lanius collurioides
I always like to get out to explore as soon as I hit a new location and there was plenty to see in a short walk from the resort including three lifers: Green-backed Tit (one of several Great Tit lookalikes from the region), Hill Prinias (fairly common) and at least 4 Vietnamese Greenfinches (which remained elusive after this first encounter). Burmese Shrike, Grey Bushchat, Verditer Flycatchers and only my second ever Mugimaki Flycatchers were also good.
Vietnamese Greenfinch Chloris monguilloti (photo by Phil Hall)
Mugimaki Flycatcher Ficedula mugimaki
Although the lake itself did not hold a great deal of interest, it was clear there was some very good habitat within easy reach of the guest house and I spent as much time as I could over the three days in the wooded hillsides and valleys on the east side. The best area was the top of a valley south of a hill marked Đồi Thánh Giá on Google maps (see this eBird hotspot). Although penetrating further down into this valley would have yielded more species, there was plenty to be going on with on a short visit closer to the top.
Barred Cuckoo-dove Macropygia unchall
Barred Cuckoo-dove showed well occasionally but Banded Bay Cuckoo was heard only. Indochinese Barbets were abundant and heard continuously. Grey-capped Woodpecker, the Black-naped form of Grey-headed Woodpecker and Lesser Yellownape, Scarlet and Grey-chinned Minivets, Slender-billed Oriole, Large Woodshrike, Indochinese Cuckooshrike and Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike all showed from time to time. Black-crested and Sooty-headed Bulbuls were common but Flavescent Bulbul and Ashy Bulbul less so. A flock of Black Bulbuls feeding in a flowering tree were often joined by Eye-browed Thrushes and Hair-crested Drongos.
A noisy flock of White-cheeked Laughingthrushes showed a couple of times and the place was brightened up by colourful Fire-breasted Flowerpeckers and Mrs Gould's Sunbirds and the Grey-crowned form of the splendid Black-throated Tit (surely a candidate for a split given the isolated population and different morphology). The Chestnut-vented Nuthatch (ssp. grisiventris) here is also massively disconnected from the main population in the eastern Himalayas. Among the extremely numerous Yellow-browed Warblers, Kloss' Warblers were quite abundant and singing most of the time.
Yellow-browed Warbler Phylloscopus inornatus
We spent one day exploring Dalat town itself and the well-named "Crazy House" (which was far more fun that it should have been). We had White-shouldered Starlings and Burmese Shrike in the parks, a White-bellied Eagle over the large lake and Common Sandpiper and Chinese Pond Herons in the flower gardens.
One evening we ate at the guest house opposite and ended up spending a fabulous evening playing music and singing with the French/Vietnamese family running it. A magically spontaneous evening which will be hard to forget.
This was a truly different place to go birding and I'd like to have spent longer exploring. In the end I recorded 66 species with 15 lifers.
Little Grebe Rock Dove Spotted Dove Barred Cuckoo-Dove Greater Coucal Banded Bay Cuckoo Germain's Swiftlet House Swift Asian Palm-Swift Common Moorhen Common Sandpiper Little Egret Chinese Pond Heron Crested Honey-buzzard Crested Serpent-Eagle White-bellied Sea-Eagle Eurasian Hoopoe Common Kingfisher Indochinese Barbet Grey-capped Woodpecker Lesser Yellownape Grey-headed Woodpecker Grey-chinned Minivet Scarlet Minivet Indochinese Cuckooshrike Slender-billed Oriole Ashy Woodswallow Large Woodshrike Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike White-throated Fantail Ashy Drongo Hair-crested Drongo Burmese Shrike Eurasian Jay Green-backed Tit Dark-necked Tailorbird Hill Prinia Barn Swallow Black-crested Bulbul Sooty-headed Bulbul Flavescent Bulbul Black Bulbul Ashy Bulbul Yellow-browed Warbler Dusky Warbler Kloss's Leaf Warbler Black-throated Tit Swinhoe's White-eye White-cheeked Laughingthrush Chestnut-vented Nuthatch Black-collared Starling White-shouldered Starling Common Myna Eyebrowed Thrush Asian Brown Flycatcher Verditer Flycatcher Mugimaki Flycatcher Grey Bushchat Fire-breasted Flowerpecker Olive-backed Sunbird Mrs. Gould's Sunbird Scaly-breasted Munia Eurasian Tree Sparrow Grey Wagtail Olive-backed Pipit Vietnamese Greenfinch
Wow! A three and a half hour journey and we arrived at superb wooden accommodation overhanging the river a short walk from the ferry across to the National Park. A Lesser Adjutant soaring overhead as we arrived was to be the only one we saw but it was the start of an incredible week with 129 species of bird (18 lifers) and 10 mammals.
Cat Tien is a large lowland forest on the west bank of the Dong Nai River. Entry costs just 60,000 dong (about £2) and includes the ferry crossing but must be paid again if you leave and return in the same day. First crossing is at around 7am after the dawn songs from the Yellow-cheeked Gibbons have subsided. Good roads, trails and paths spread out from the landing mainly along the course of the river but also well inland to the NW towards a large lake, Bàu Sấu, known for it's semi-wild Siamese Crocodiles, and beyond.
Many of the off-road trails direct you to monumental trees and these trails proved the most productive for the more interesting forest birds. Within a short walk of the entrance there are a number of privately run hides. A position in one of the hides costs $30 a day but the birds that are attracted to the food and water provided there can be seen from the trails nearby if you aren't fussed about point blank views. You would need to visit all three to be sure to see all the specialities here.
We kept extending our stay here and ended up doing 7 nights. I could have stayed much longer. There was still much to see. The Green Bamboo Lodge has a range of accommodation options and does a good choice of food. It is possible, but not guaranteed, to see the male gibbons from here as they sing from the treetops on the opposite side of the river at dawn but our encounters were all in the forest near the ferry.
These were by far and away the highlight of the time here. Although heard close by every morning they spend a lot of their time quietly in the tops of the trees and glimpsed only rarely, but once or twice we encountered them closer to the ground. This video is one of those magical once in a lifetime experiences. The boisterous gibbon close to us is an immature (3 year old) male, part of a family group with its parents, and known to approach visitors. At one point when swinging across the path it used my upper chest to spring off.
We failed to encounter the Black-shanked Doucs here, which by all accounts were much deeper into park but Long-tailed, Northern Pig-tailed and possibly Stump-tailed Macaques were all seen. Other mammals included Northern Slender-tailed Treeshrew, Cambodian Striped Squirrel, Indochinese Ground Squirrel, Horse-tailed and Pallas' Squirrels and a Giant Muntjac!
Slaty-legged Crake Rallina eurizonoides
On to the birds then. Germain's Peacock Pheasant is one of two speciality pheasants here, the other being Siamese Flameback, which I unfortunately failed to locate. I only saw Germain's close to the hide south of the HQ where they are fed. This also produced my only sightings of Blue-rumped Pitta and Slaty-legged Crake but all were in very poor light with limited views. Views from the hide itself would have been spectacular. The Giant Muntjac showed close to here.
Black-capped Kingfisher Halcyon pileata
Great-eared Nightjars were common and heard singing at dawn and dusk but only occasionally seen over the farmland. Among other more common farmland birds a Burmese Shrike here was my first. The river was very productive and many birds could be seen with patience from the room balcony, often during morning and evening roost movements. Best were Pied and Black-capped Kingfishers, Oriental Pied and Great Hornbills, Oriental Darter and Blue-bearded Bee-eater. The Hornbills made dawn and dusk flights to and from the island just upstream of the ferry but views were generally brief and distant in very poor light.
Still on the eastern shore Dollarbirds were plentiful and displaying at times. Vernal Hanging Parrot and more numerous Red-breasted Parakeets often flew across the river. Watching the treetops in the park from this shore produced the only views of my first Golden-crested Mynas.
Bar-bellied Pitta Hydrornis elliotii
One of the most productive trails starts just close to the slipway near HQ. As you walk up from the ferry turn right onto the main road and c.100m on the left are stepping stones heading into the forest. This was where most gibbon encounters occurred and where we had very close views of Bar-bellied Pitta and Orange-headed Thrush at one of the hides. The Pitta also showed on the trail itself along with other forest floor species such as Scaly-breasted Partridge, Siberian Blue Robin and Puff-throated Babbler. Other highlights along here were Black-and-buff Woodpeckers (flock of 3), Laced Woodpecker, Lesser Yellownape, 5 Black-and-red Broadbills together, an Orange-breasted Trogon and Large Woodshrike.
Following the main track/road north from the HQ/landing was excellent with waves of birds often passing containing things like Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Yellow-bellied Warbler, Van Hasselt's Sunbird Thick-billed Flowerpecker, Purple-naped Spiderhunter and, another lifer for me, Grey-faced Tit-babbler. It was particularly good for Kingfishers, especially at places where it crossed muddy streams and pools. Black-capped, Stork-billed and Blue-eared Kingfishers all showed from time to time. Along with Pied and Common Kingfishers at the river, White-throated on the farmland and a female Banded Kingfisher at a drier part of the track there were 7 species here.
Banded Kingfisher Lacedo pulchella (photo by Phil Hall)
A short trail leaves the main track towards what's called the Uncle Dong Tree and this junction often produced loads of great birds and a few Long-tailed and Pig-tailed Macaques. On one occasion 3 Orange-breasted Trogons, a Black-and-red and 2 Banded Broadbills. Grey-eyed Bulbul and Swinhoe's Minivet were both firsts for me along here.
Banded Broadbill Eurylaimus javanicus
Orange-breasted Trogon Harpactes oreskios
Buffy Fish Owl Ketupa ketupu
Another good area was nearer HQ where a dry ford crossed just below a small dam. This held a Buffy Fish Owl that was present the whole week but could be incredibly hard to see as it tucked into the rocks of the dam but sometimes was out hunting in the remaining small pools.
I should just mention the rather up-market Forest Floor Lodge, which as far as I can tell is the only accommodation on the National Park side of the river other than at HQ. A pause here for a shady drink showed what an incredible location it enjoys. Views past fruiting trees looking up the river would be incredible for picking up Hornbills, Egrets, Adjutants and the like in flight. As it is we enjoyed extended views of an Osprey over and close views of Yellow-vented and Thick-billed Flowerpeckers, Blue-winged Leafbird and Verditer Flycatcher.
Finally there is a trail billed as the Botanical Gardens, although it is pretty dense forest, if rather younger than most of the other trails. The denser understory here made birding harder but it was the only place I saw Grey-headed Woodpecker and Scaly-crowned Babbler and it was great to see a male Blyth's Paradise Flycatcher with a full tail here.