This was the first Birdwatching Breaks tour to Vietnam. We visited the southern half of the country visiting the wonderful Cat Tien National Park, various sites on the Da Lat plateau and finally Bach Ma National Park in Central Annam. The weather was generally hot and humid, although some breezy days and overcast conditions clearly made things hard going at times. We were lucky to miss Typhoon Durian that made landfall at Saigon, just 150km away from where we were in Cat Tien. Having caused considerable damage and taken some lives around Saigon, we can consider ourselves very lucky to have just had an afternoon birding only marginally compromised by breezy conditions. However, Typhoon Utor threatened to make landfall near Bach Ma and the rain associated with this weather system disrupted our birding and necessitated our departure a day early.
The birding was a little slow at times and birds were not always very responsive, but with a little hard work we were able to find a wide selection of south-east Asian birds with many of the species restricted to Indochina. We located 263 species in total. Of the available Vietnamese endemics we enjoyed excellent views of both Vietnamese Greenfinch and the stunning Grey-crowned Crocias. Collared Laughingthrush was seen only briefly and Orange-breasted Laughingthrush refused to move into a position where we could see them. Other good birds included the near-endemic Orange-necked Partridge (seen by few other birders), Red-vented Barbet, Siamese Fireback, Brown Hornbill, Black-and-buff Woodpecker, Great Eared Nightjar, Bar-bellied Pitta, Banded, Dusky and Long-tailed Broadbills, the local form of Cutia, a cracking flock of Grey-headed Parrotbills, Grey-faced Tit-Babbler, Masked, White-cheeked and Black-hooded Laughingthrush, Black-headed Sibias, Racket-tailed Treepie and much more besides.
December 2nd/3rd: Journey to Saigon then on to Cat Tien National Park.
Weather: Hot and humid.
After meeting at London we boarded our Cathay Pacific flight from Heathrow to Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon as it is known by most Vietnamese) via Hong Kong. We arrived more or less on schedule in Saigon and once clear of the rather chaotic immigration and baggage reclaim we were on our way into central Saigon. We enjoyed our first bowl of noodle soup and then pressed on to Cat Tien National Park. Arriving around 4pm there was enough time to check into our simple but clean air-conditioned rooms before a short walk to look for our first birds. In the short time before it got dark we enjoyed Green Imperial Pigeon, Dollarbird, Indian Roller, 2 Woolly-necked Storks and at dusk a large flight of 40+ almost harrier-sized Great Eared Nightjars.
December 4th: Cat Tien National Park – Trail to Crocodile Lake, HQ Trail.
Weather: Hot and humid, more overcast and quite breezy in the afternoon.
An early start found us heading quickly down the trail towards Crocodile Lake in the hope of reaching the lake as early in the day as possible. We had hoped to find Green Peafowl, but sadly we only heard this magnificent bird calling from an area we were unable to view. However, there was much to keep us amused. The lake was home to good numbers of Purple Swamphen, Bronze-winged Jacana, Purple Heron, Intermediate Egret, Lesser Whistling-duck, Stork-billed and White-throated Kingfishers and a flock of Grey-headed and Red-wattled Lapwings. Around the edges of the lake we enjoyed Vinous-breasted Starlings and Eastern Stonechat. Overhead we saw Lesser Adjutant, Osprey and Crested Serpent-eagle and Ashy Woodswallows were dipping down to drink from the water surface.
We took a slow walk back through the forest, but things were rather quiet. Ochraceous Bulbul popped up briefly, White-rumped Shama showed at close range, a Crimson Sunbird was high in the canopy and Asian Paradise Flycatcher, Black-naped Monarch and Great Iora were also seen. A Little Spiderhunter fizzed around the end of the trail as we waited for our lift back to the HQ for lunch.
After lunch and a short siesta we explored the HQ Trail in increasingly windy conditions. Again the birding was a bit slow but a calling Bar-bellied Pitta soon raised spirits as it responded strongly to the playback and was seen well by all. At the Heaven’s rapids we saw Crow-billed and Ashy Drongo and a Stork-billed Kingfisher streaked by. Returning to the HQ we heard a Brown Hawk Owl which was easily seen well in the spotlight.
December 5th: Cat Tien National Park – Dak Lua/Bao Bo, Nha Grasslands.
Weather: Hot and humid. Overcast in morning, much brighter later.
The day dawned rather overcast and rain was threatening. With great good fortune though the rain stayed away and we later discovered that Typhoon Durian had missed us by just 150km and had caused considerable damage and flooding near Saigon and areas to the south. Our birding began with a slow drive to Dac Lua in the hope of finding pheasants along the road. Our early morning drive proved fruitless in this respect, but we found plenty of other good birds. Oriental Pied Hornbills showed well, a Laced Woodpecker fizzed by and our first Scarlet Minivets were found. Orange-breasted and Thick-billed Green Pigeons were seen well and White-bellied Woodpecker was seen briefly. Vernal Hanging-parrots whizzed over as is typical of this species.
At Dak Lua we found Taiga Flycatcher, Red Collared Dove, Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker and Streak-eared Bulbul. The low hills around Dak Lua are home to the very rare Orange-necked Partridge. This species was only rediscovered here in the mid 1990’s and has been seen by very few birders. We were delighted therefore to see this very shy and elusive bird. In the same area we found Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Striped Tit-Babbler, Striped-throated Bulbul, Black-naped Monarch, Lineated Barbet, two Racket-tailed Treepies and Brown Shrike. On our slow drive back to HQ we found a number of opportunities to stop for birds. A Germain’s Peacock-Pheasant was heard, but despite trying hard we could not lure this shy bird into view. Compensation came in the form of Orange-breasted Trogon which was seen well. Further down the track we found Scarlet Minivet, Black-crested Bulbul, Black-winged Cuckooshrike and crossing the road after midday a fine male Siamese Fireback. Splendid stuff!
A very hot and humid afternoon was spent in the grasslands to the south of HQ. Here we enjoyed Black-headed Bulbul, Yellow-browed and Two-barred Greenish Warbler, Common Iora, Oriental Reed Warbler and some stunning Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters. At dusk we again heard Green Peafowl, but we were unable to locate it before it got dark and again Great Eared Nightjars and a Large-tailed Nightjar were seen.
December 6th: Cat Tien National Park, Journey to Bao Loc.
Weather: Hot and humid.
During the morning we enjoyed a slow walk along the road and trails not far from HQ. Birding the forest edge in the early morning sunlight we found plenty of interest. Black-naped Oriole, Common Flameback, Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike, an obliging Little Spiderhunter, Banded Bay Cuckoo, Blue-winged Leafbird featured early and were seen well. Sadly a calling Banded Kingfisher eluded our bins. A Buff-breasted Babbler came in, in response to playback and a flock of Greenshank calling as they flew over was something of a surprise. During the morning we enjoyed scope views of Blue-eared, Green-eared and Coppersmith’s Barbets. Sunbirds included dazzling males of Purple-throated and Crimson. Tickell’s Flycatcher was seen on a couple of occasions. Feeding flocks in the forest provided a chance to get our first good views of Grey-faced Tit-Babbler. Flocks of Scaly-crowned Babblers worked their way through the undergrowth. Other goodies included a smart male Blue-throated Flycatcher, some superb Dusky Broadbills, a cracking Black-and-buff Woodpecker, Greater Yellownape and Indochinese Cuckooshrike.
After lunch we packed and headed for Bao Loc. En-route we added Pied Bushchat and Eastern Cattle Egret to the trip list and arrived at our hotel in the late afternoon.
December 7th: Deo Nui San.
Weather: Hot and humid.
Another early start and an hour or so drive found us birding the road along the forested pass of Deo Nui San. On arrival it was obvious that there was plenty of bird activity. Grey-crowned Tit, White-tailed Leaf Warbler, Mountain Imperial Pigeon, Black-browed Barbet, Flavescent Bulbul, Verditer Flycatcher and Streaked Spiderhunter were among the early species we encountered. The striking endemic Vietnamese Greenfinches were seen well through the scope, whilst Black-headed Sibias of the distinctive form robinsoni were seen briefly. A Green Cochoa sang, but frustratingly we couldn’t see it. A feeding flock included the cracking Cutia, here of the endemic form legalleni, which is a likely split from the form occurring in the Himalayas. Other birds in this feeding flock included the striking White-browed Shrike-babbler, Asian Emerald Cuckoo, White-throated Fantail, Blyth’s Leaf Warbler, Grey-headed Canary Flycatchers and a Yellow-bellied Warbler. The other endemic we sought here, the Orange-breasted Laughingthrush was heard, but could not be coaxed into view. Overhead we noted Black Eagle and Mountain Hawk-Eagle.
After a lunch break we explored a trail into the forest. A feeding flock included 3 foraging Red-billed Scimitar-Babblers and a White-throated Rock Thrush popped up close by. In some fruiting trees we enjoyed good views of Black-headed Sibias feeding at close range.
A final walk along the road again produced singing but unseen Orange-breasted Laughingthrush, scope views of 2 Red-vented Barbets and a cracking flock of Grey Parrotbills of the form margaritae, another likely split, ended an excellent day’s birding.
December 8th: Deo Nui San, Duc Trong, Da Tan La.
Weather: Hot and humid. Cooler at Da Lat.
Returning to Deo Nui San for a further morning birding we found a Black Baza not far from Di Linh, whilst 2 Black-collared Starlings were new. At the pass there was a briefly seen Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo and Rufous-capped Babblers flitted through the roadside shrubs. A flock of White-cheeked Laughingthrush were seen bouncing their way through the forest undergrowth and a good feeding flock in a similar location to yesterday produced many of the same birds, but additions included a brief Little Pied Flycatcher and several White-bellied Yuhinas.
Having finished our birding at Deo Nui San we headed off in the direction of Da Lat. En-route we stopped to admire a fine Burmese Shrike by the roadside. At Duc Trong we explored the extensive paddies near town. There were plenty of Yellow Wagtails of the form macronyx plus Paddyfield and at least 10 Red-throated Pipits. Plain Prinia and Zitting Cisticola skulked in the low vegetation, whilst large numbers of egrets and pond-herons included Great and Intermediate Egrets. A flock of Little Ringed Plovers were scoped and three Wood Sandpipers flew over.
Our final stop of the day was at the waterfall at Da Tan La but the recent construction of a visitor attraction has reduced the attractiveness of this site for birds. However, we did find Black-crested Bulbul on our way down to the falls, whilst at the falls we located Blue Whistling Thrush and 2 smart Slaty-backed Forktails. In the pines near the car park 2 Chestnut-vented Nuthatches foraged.
December 9th: Mount Lang Bian.
Weather: Cool and breezy with variable cloud.
Our visit to Mount Lang Bian began with a swift jeep ride up the steepest part of the road in order to reach the evergreen forest soon after dawn. The brisk walk to the main patch of forest produced Crossbills singing from the top of a pine. Our first target was to try and find the extremely skulking Collared Laughingthrush. Although we were able to find several calling birds they were very reluctant to respond to playback and despite a substantial effort to see them, were only glimpsed. Later a small flock was found, but they soon skulked off into the dense under-storey leaving us somewhat frustrated. However we were able to find plenty of other birds to keep us amused although the cool temperatures and breezy conditions hampered our birding to some extent. Feeding flocks included Grey-cheeked Warbler, Chestnut-crowned Warbler, Rufous-winged Fulvettas (of the local form klossi) creeping along the branches like nuthatches, Yellow-cheeked Tit, Blue-winged Minla and the stunning Gould’s Sunbird. Lesser Shortwings were not uncommon and we managed to coax 2 into the open for most of us to get good view. Grey-bellied Tesias were less obliging and were only glimpsed zipping across the path. Pygmy Wren-babblers refused to co-operate at all! A pair of Orange-bellied Leafbirds were seen well and a Golden-throated Barbet was seen well in the scope.
On the way down the hill, we saw appropriately enough, a singing Hill Prinia. Black-crested Bulbuls frequented the low bushes, 2 Eurasian Jays of the black crowned form leucotis moved quickly through the pines. A small flock of Long-tailed Minivets did not really linger and Olive-backed Pipits proved even more elusive. Nice scope views were enjoyed of Burmese and Brown Shrikes hunting in the fields at the bottom of the hill, a nice way to end a tiring, but enjoyable day in the field.
December 10th: Ho Tuyen Lam.
Weather: Hot with variable cloud, very light shower and breezy in the late afternoon.
After a boat ride across the lake we were soon birding at the far end of Ho Tuyen Lam in the early morning sunshine. The trails here are often difficult to follow and access into the forest can be tricky, nevertheless the morning was productive. A Slender-billed Oriole was seen briefly in the scope, before it headed off and out of view. An early nice surprise came in the form of a cracking Oriental Hobby perched in an open tree-top and seen well by all before flying off. The first of several Grey Bushchats was seen perched up on the edge of the forest and a flock of Large Woodshrikes moved through the open pine woodland. Bar-backed Partridges were heard calling, but remained unseen. We enjoyed good views of Chestnut-vented Nuthatch, Vietnamese Greenfinch and a group of White-cheeked Laughingthrushes moved through the edge of a patch of forest. A singing Mountain Tailorbird was seen well. As we neared time for our lunch break we had a brief glimpse of a group of the highly sought-after Grey-crowned Crocias. This species was only re-discovered in the mid 1990’s and is only known from a very few sites in Vietnam. After some time we were enjoying excellent scope views of 6 of these very smart birds and afterwards enjoyed our lunch as their calls rang through the forest. Superb!
After the excitement of locating the Crocias, we experienced a rather slow afternoon birding with increasingly breezy and overcast conditions possibly affecting the levels of bird activity. However we did find several woodpeckers in the form of 2 Grey-capped Pygmy and obliging Lesser Yellownape and Greater Flameback. 2 Wedge-tailed Green-Pigeons zipped through and sadly did not linger.
December 11th: Ta Nung.
Weather: Hot and sunny.
We spent the entire day having a thorough exploration of the small valley at Ta Nung. Arriving as dawn broke we had a very birdy walk down into the valley. Scanning the tree-tops we found groups of Asian Fairy Bluebirds, Blue-throated Barbet, Black-browed Barbet and Black Bulbuls. Flocks of Wedge-tailed Green Pigeons fed on fruiting trees and overhead a flock of Pin-tailed Green Pigeons flew over. As the sun hit the bushes on our side of the valley we found Verditer Flycatcher, flocks of Mountain Fulvettas, Mugimaki Flycatcher, Mountain Tailorbird and a brief Plain-tailed Warbler. A Green Cochoa was heard but again remained unseen. Heading along the main trail along a small stream we encountered mixed feeding flocks that included Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrikes, Scarlet Minivets, Grey-headed Canary-flycatchers and Velvet-fronted Nuthatch. In the undergrowth we teased out a Pygmy Wren-babbler that showed very well, whilst a Lesser Shortwing gave itself up to all. A Bay Woodpecker zipped around above us. On our way out we had brief views of a Bar-backed Partridge.
After lunch our birding produced many of the same birds, but new species included a very brief Siberian Blue Robin, Oriental White-eye and an Emerald Dove for Keith.
December 12th: Ta Nung, Da Lat to Saigon to Hue and transfer to Bach Ma.
Weather: Hot and sunny.
We began the day with a short return visit to Ta Nung. Heading quickly down into the valley we found a smart male Little Pied Flycatcher amongst many of the same species encountered the previous day. Our main target was to try and see Black-hooded Laughingthrush, a species we had heard but not yet seen. A flock was soon heard and playback resulted in views for most of us. Along the stream trail we had views of Grey-crowned Crocias, Grey-bellied Tesia and brief encounters with Bay Woodpecker. A final search along another trail produced another Tesia and then a flock of Black-hooded Laughingthrushes gave themselves up to us all.
After an early lunch we caught our early afternoon flight to Saigon, connecting with our onward flight to Hue, arriving soon after 7.30pm. An hour later we were arriving at our simple accommodation at Bach Ma, where Mountain Scops Owl were heard calling.
December 13th: Bach Ma.
Weather: Overcast and then windy with rain and low cloud. Chilly.
The clear skies of the previous evening dawned grey and overcast. We began the day heading up the road to pheasant trail. En-route we saw a Large-tailed Nightjar perched on the road. Our progress along the trail was hampered by many fallen trees, victims of a typhoon the previous month. This was hard going and the birds were very quiet too. However a brief clearance in the mist provided us with good views of Austen’s Brown Hornbill, a flock totalling 14 birds heading over to perch in nearby trees. Oriental Pied Hornbills were less obliging. Puff-throated Bulbul, flocks of Striped Tit-babblers and Dark-necked Tailorbirds were among the few other birds we saw. A flock of Annam Partridges and a Red-headed Trogon called but remained unseen.
Heading down the mountain we had a search for Masked Laughingthrush, a small group of which performed well. A Besra and a Long-tailed Shrike were new for our list, but rain was now falling and the weather was deteriorating. When we reached the top of the mountain we had lunch, but the weather was increasingly wet and windy and news reached us of Typhoon Utor and its forecast arrival on the central Vietnamese coast in the next 24-48 hours. Not wanting to risk being stuck here I arranged for our schedule to be changed and reluctantly we were booked onto a morning flight back to Saigon. Birding was pretty much abandoned for the day, but a late afternoon walk produced a flock of Silver-eared Mesias, Olive-backed Pipit and a very brief White-crowned Forktail.
December 14th : Bach Ma – Hue - Saigon.
Weather: Wet and breezy at Bach Ma. Hot and sunny in Saigon.
We headed down the mountain early in the day, disappointed to have to leave this excellent location in such poor weather. On the way down we noted 2 Woodcock and Keith glimpsed a Siberian Thrush. Brown Hornbills were again noted. Along the coast Black Drongos dotted the roadside wires. Our flight to Saigon was delayed and we eventually arrived in the hot south in the early afternoon. After checking into a hotel we had some birding in the botanical gardens/Zoo. Here we found Taiga Flycatcher, Black-winged Cuckooshrike, Coppersmith’s Barbet, Streak-eared Bulbul and heard a Plaintive Cuckoo.
December 15th : Saigon south (Phu My Hung).
Weather: Hot, humid and sunny.
Our last morning was spent birding with Richard Craik along the river in south Saigon. The mudflats and remnants of mangroves proved to be quite productive. We enjoyed a leisurely morning that produced Yellow Bittern, Slaty-breasted Rail, Ruddy-breasted Crake, Collared, Black-capped and Common Kingfisher, Pied Fantail, Little Ringed Plover and Common Sandpiper, Oriental Reed and Dusky Warblers, White-shouldered Starling and Scaly-breasted Munia. On the other side of the river we located Paddyfield Pipits, Common Myna, fine Plain-backed Sparrows and an obliging Plaintive Cuckoo. Further explorations produced Golden-bellied Gerygone, a female Plaintive Cuckoo and a Richard’s Pipit. A pleasant way to spend the morning before we packed our things, had a leisurely lunch and headed for the airport where we caught our flight back to the UK, arriving early in the morning of December 16th.
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