This was the second Birdwatching Breaks tour of Vietnam, and unfortunately we coincided with a prolonged period of cold weather with some locations near Hanoi recording the lowest temperatures ever recorded in the country. Our time at Tam Dao and Cuc Phuong was certainly seriously affected by the cold temperatures and rain, resulting in a significant reduction in bird activity. In the south, the weather at Cat Tien was surprisingly pleasant (not the usual hot and humid conditions), and rain disrupted our last morning on the Da Lat plateau. On the extension to the Central Highlands the weather was wet and misty for much of the time and our birding was disrupted as a result.
Despite all of this we had a successful tour and although our total species count was below where I would normally expect (271 seen with an additional 20 heard only), we did locate many of the specialities of the region. Of the Vietnamese endemics and near-endemics we located Annam Barbet, Vietnamese Cutia, Black-crowned Parrotbill, Collared Laughingthrush, Grey-crowned Crocias, Vietnamese Greenfinch. The Central highlands extension produced Black-crowned Barwing, the very rare and little known Chestnut-eared Laughingthrush (perhaps seen by fewer than 20 birders) and Sooty Babbler. Unfortunately despite prolonged attempts to see them, both Orange-breasted and Black-hooded Laughingthrushes were only heard.
Other highlights included Germain’s Peacock-Pheasant, Siamese Fireback, Rufous-bellied Eagle, Pied Falconet, Brown Boobook, Collared Scops Owl, Great Eared and Large-tailed Nightjars, Speckled Piculet, Great Slaty Woodpecker, Bar-bellied Pitta, Silver-breasted and Black-and-red Broadbills, Red-vented Barbet , Red-headed Trogon, Swinhoe’s Minivet, Black-browed and Rufous-throated Fulvetta, White’s, Japanese and Siberian Thrushes, Limestone Wren-babbler, White-cheeked and Masked Laughingthrush, Sultan Tit, Slender-billed Oriole, Burmese Shrike, Grey-headed Parrotbill, Black-headed and Rufous-backed Sibia, White-winged Magpie, Racket-tailed Treepie, Vinous-breasted Starling, Fork-tailed Sunbird, Mrs Goud’s Sunbird and Black-throated Sunbird of the form johnsi.
January 7th / 8th: London to Hanoi.
I met up with John, Carol, Mike and Stephanie at Heathrow and we caught our Qatar Airways flight to Doha. Unfortunately a delay in leaving London meant we missed our connection Doha and so we were re-routed via Saigon and on with Vietnam Airlines to Hanoi. Another missed connection in Saigon (it seems Qatar Airways are overly optimistic with connections!) we eventually arrived in Hanoi around 2330 hours, where we met up with Richard and the rest of the group. From there it was a little under two hours to our hotel in Tam Dao and much relief that a long and exhausting journey was at last over. Richard and the early arrivals managed some birding in Hanoi’s Botanical Gardens notching up Dark-sided, Taiga and Brown Flycatcher, Red-flanked Bluetail, Olive-backed Pipit and Common Tailorbird.
January 9th: Tam Dao.
Weather: Misty with some drizzle at times, cold and windy.
The morning dawned to typically dull and misty weather, conditions that seem to prevail at Tam Dao for much of the time. However, it was also windy and very cold, so our birding options and the amount of bird activity was rather restricted. With strong winds greeting our arrival at the Watertank Trail we changed plans and began by working the steps up to the communications tower where it was a struggle to identify birds in the dull conditions. However we managed to locate Red-headed Trogon, Grey Laughingthrush (for some), Golden Babbler and Black-breasted Thrush. Deciding that the weather was just too difficult here we opted to drop down from the town and try alternative locations. This at least resulted in a few more birds with Sooty-headed, Black-crested and Puff-throated Bulbul, Japanese Tit, Japanese White-eye and Yellow-browed Warbler all seen fairly well. After lunch the weather had improved slightly and we tried the Watertank Trail where we found good numbers of birds in the more sheltered spots. Highlights of the afternoon included good views of Greater Rufous-headed Parrotbill, Sultan Tit, Lesser Yellownape, Schaeffer’s Fulvetta, Golden Babbler and Red-flanked Bluetail. Collared Babblers led us a merry dance and showed to some.
January 10th: Tam Dao. Journey to Cuc Phuong with stops in Hanoi (lunch) and Van Long Marsh.
Weather: Cold and overcast at Tam Dao. Less cold, but still overcast in the lowlands.
We began the day with a rather cold walk along the Watertank Trail at Tam Dao. The birding was slow with the cold temperatures keeping bird activity to a minimum. Our walk produced some interesting sightings though, with good scope views of Golden-throated Barbet being well received. The Collared Babblers once again tantalised and some group members left disappointed. Pallas’s Warbler was seen by most and a Red-flanked Bluetail could have been offered a guides job as it headed along the trail ahead of us. Descending to the lowlands we added some birds to the list as we travelled. Black-shouldered Kite, Black Drongo and Kestrel were among a number of additions, whilst the marsh at Van Long was productive with White-browed Crake, Yellow Bittern, Garganey, Eastern Stonechat, Plain Prinia, Little, Great and Intermediate Egrets and White-throated Kingfisher.
January 11th: Cuc Phuong.
Weather: Cold and overcast with rain throughout the morning and moderate to strong winds.
The day dawned overcast and windy, but our journey into the park began with a ’thrush safari’ as we drove slowly along the road to the Bong substation. Our first bird was an obliging White’s Thrush which was seen well as it fed along the road. Japanese Thrushes were also present and an Orange-headed Thrush was seen perched on a post. Somewhat more notable was a splendid male Bar-bellied Pitta which lingered briefly on the road before flying into cover. A great sighting for some, but disappointing for those that missed it. Our plans had to be altered on arrival with steady rain beginning to fall. Some time on the grid produced little, whilst the Bong clearing gave us sightings of Green-eared Barbet and Red-whiskered Bulbul. Heading down the valley trail the birding was difficult due to the weather conditions but we managed to locate Rufous-tailed Robin, Siberian Rubythroat, Pin-striped Tit-babbler, Grey-crowned Warbler, White-bellied Erpornis and Eastern Crowned Warbler. Despite the unpleasant and difficult conditions we were managing to find some decent birds! Other highlights of the morning included White-rumped Shama, Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, an obliging Puff-throated Babbler and just before lunch Black-browed Fulvetta and at least two smart Silver-breasted Broadbills.
Our lunch stop was enlivened by Grey-backed Shrike and Black Eagle. The afternoon session proved cold and uncomfortable, although at least the rain had stopped. Greater Flameback and Sultan Tit were among early successes and some effort with the playback gave most of us views of a Bar-bellied Pitta. With the cold really starting to get unpleasant we headed back to HQ picking up Emerald Dove en-route. A final hour in the Botanical Gardens produced some nice encounters with Japanese Thrushes, but little else of note.
January 12th: Cuc Phuong.
Weather: Dry and mostly overcast, a little less cold.
A better day although still cold and a little breezy at first. We began by driving to Bong, seeing Japanese, Orange-headed and White’s Thrushes, Fujian Niltava, Puff-throated Babbler, a briefly seen Bay Woodpecker and Emerald Dove along the way. We opted to do the Loop Trail during the morning and although slow at times, a decent haul of birds included good views of Limestone Wren-babbler, Rufous-throated Fulvetta, a group of Silver-breasted Broadbills, Dark-necked Tailorbird, Rufescent Prinia, Bianchi’s Warbler, Blyth’s Leaf Warbler, Red-headed Trogon and Crested Goshawk.
After lunch a slow session on the grid produced little of interest, but in the Bong clearing two Pied Falconets performed nicely. We ended the day near the HQ with brief views of White-winged Magpie, Long-tailed Shrike, Japanese Tit and Olive-backed Pipit among the more interesting sightings.
January 13th: Cuc Phuong to Cat Tien.
Weather: Dry, overcast and cold in the north. Overcast and very warm in the south.
We had an early start to catch a flight from Hanoi to Saigon. Our flight was delayed by an hour, so arrival in Saigon was not until after 3pm. After collecting our bags we were on our way through the mad streets of Saigon and eventually we reached Cat Tien around 9pm. A long tiring day.
January 14th: Cat Tien – Crocodile Lake Trail (AM), Ta Lai Grasslands (PM).
Weather: Very warm and dry (although cooler than normal by Cat Tien’s standards!).
We began our exploration of Cat Tien with a walk along the road at the HQ. The commoner Cat Tien birds included Bronzed Drongo, Common Iora, Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike, Thick-billed Pigeon, Green Imperial Pigeon, Oriental Pied Hornbill, Ruby-cheeked Sunbird and Asian Brown Flycatcher. We soon headed for the trail to Crocodile Lake, with the trip to the trailhead producing brief views of Crested Serpent Eagle, Siamese Fireback and Bay Woodpecker. At the trailhead we located Red-breasted Parakeet, Banded Bay Cuckoo and had excellent views of Green-billed Malkoha. Bird activity along the trail was typically patchy with good finds including Orange-breasted Trogon, several flocks of Grey-faced Tit-babbler, Great Iora, Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Black-naped Monarch, Blue-winged Leafbird, a Bar-bellied Pitta that showed to most of the group and a Germain’s Peacock-pheasant that walked slowly through the forest and across the trail. On the trip back to HQ we located Swinhoe’s Minivet.
In the afternoon we headed to the Ta Lai grasslands, an area which is good for Green Peafowl. Although a couple of group members saw this species, despite its size it managed to elude most. However new birds for the rapidly growing trip list included Common Flameback, Red Collared Dove, Indian Roller, Ashy Woodswallow, Red-wattled Lapwing, Chestnut-headed Bee-eater and Pied Bushchat. The journey back to HQ produced good views of hawking Great Eared and Large-tailed Nightjars, whilst on arrival back at HQ we had excellent views of a calling Brown Boobook, concluding a very good day in Cat Tien.
January 15th: Cat Tien – Heavens Rapids (AM), Lagerstromia Trail (PM).
Weather: Very warm but overcast and dry (still much cooler than normal by Cat Tien’s standards!).
Our second full day in Cat Tien proved to be a little slow. Overcast conditions didn’t help matters, although the temperature was much more pleasant than it usually is here. Our morning walk kicked off with Tickell’s Flycatcher and interesting sightings during the morning included a group of three obliging Great Slaty Woodpeckers, a brief Scaly-breasted Partridge, Bar-bellied Pitta, Black-headed and Grey-eyed Bulbul and Great Hornbill.
The afternoon session was predictably slow, but new trip birds were somewhat easier to come by with Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Blue-eared, Coppersmith’s and Lineated Barbets, Asian Fairy Bluebird, Grey-breasted Prinia and Black-and-red Broadbill all performing for us. At dusk we headed for the Crocodile Lake trail head in search of nightbirds. Our drive produced a nice Collared Scops Owl and a Pygmy Loris. At the trail head a Blyth’s Frogmouth was heard calling on arrival but eluded any attempt to see it. The return journey produced another calling bird which behaved similarly.
January 16th: Cat Tien – Dak Lua (AM). Travel to Di Linh in afternoon.
Weather: Overcast in the morning with sun breaking through later and becoming fairly hot. Cooler at Di Linh.
On our final morning in Cat Tien and we headed for Dak Lua at the edge of the park. It was a fairly busy drive out with Laced Woodpecker and Golden-crested Myna near the HQ and a fairly obliging Banded Kingfisher further along the track. A Woolly-necked Stork was perched in a tree. Our walk at Dak Lua was busy with plenty of new birds. Among the more interesting additions to the list were Golden-fronted Leafbird, Plaintive Cuckoo, Olive-backed Sunbird, Racket-tailed Treepie, Vinous-breasted Starling, Van Hasselt’s and Olive-backed Sunbirds, Rufous Woodpecker, Asian House Martin, our first Little Green Bee-eaters and of course the excitement of Streak-eared Bulbul. ? We returned to HQ and had lunch before travelling to Di Linh, noting a Black-and-red Broadbill just before departing along with Osprey and from the bus a few Red-rumped Swallows. We arrived in Di Linh in the late afternoon where there was time for a little R&R before dinner.
January 17th: Deo Suoi Lanh.
Weather: Cool and overcast early morning, but sunny and very warm by late-morning.
Today we had a morning and an afternoon at Deo Suoi Lanh, a well forest pass through the hills near Di Linh. The productive morning session produced some excellent birds, including Vietnamese Cutia, Annam Barbet and Black-crowned Parrotbill; all much desired endemics or near endemics. Other nice finds during a busy morning were Black-headed Sibia, Streaked Spiderhunter, Black-throated Sunbird, Mountain Fulvetta, Rufous-capped Babbler, Crested Goshawk, Mountain Imperial Pigeon, White-throated Rock-thrush and Mugimaki Flycatcher. Flavescent and Ochraceous Bulbuls were also new.
In the afternoon we enjoyed another good birding session. A decent feeding flock included Ashy and Black Bulbul, Scarlet Minivet, Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo, Speckled Piculet and the recently split Da Lat Shrike-babbler amongst a number of species already noted in the morning. Wandering back along the road we located a small flock of White-rumped Munias (new for some) and two Red-vented Barbets that were seen well through the scope. As dusk began to fall both Black-hooded and Orange-breasted Laughingthrushes were heard, but they showed no interest in the playback, so will have to wait for another day.
January 18th: Deo Suoi Lanh. Travel to Da Lat. Ta Nung.
Weather: Cool early morning, then sunny with broken cloud and very warm by late-morning.
The morning was spent on a return visit to Deo Suoi Lanh. This proved to be an excellent decision as there was plenty of bird activity with significantly more bird song. A large feeding flock was encountered fairly early on and kept us entertained for quite a long period of time. Highlights included Black-chinned Yuhina, Indochinese Cuckooshrike, Grey-crowned Tit, several Maroon Orioles, White-tailed Leaf Warbler, Black-crowned Parrotbills, Grey-chinned and Scarlet Minivets, Blue-winged Minla (or Siva as we should now call it!), Speckled Piculet and Velvet-fronted Nuthatch. Virginia and Mike had the good fortune to see a Pin-tailed Green Pigeon. Heading back down to Di Linh we saw our first Burmese Shrike. We arrived at Da Lat in time for lunch and then in the late afternoon visited Ta Nung. It was rather quiet although large numbers of Black Bulbuls and Asian Fairy Bluebirds were present. A juvenile Rufous-bellied Eagle drifted over and an Osprey was also seen. We heard Orange-breasted Laughingthrush, but it did not want to co-operate, whilst Spot-bellied Eagle Owl was also heard but not seen.
January 19th: Mount Lang Bian, Ho Tuyen Lam.
Weather: Warm and sunny in the morning, then increasing cloud with an afternoon shower.
We spent the morning exploring the upper slopes of Mount Lang Bian. Around the car park at the bottom of the mountain we saw Paddyfield Pipit and Black-collared Starling. Higher up in the evergreen forest we spent a lot of time playing hide and seek with the typically skulking and elusive Collared Laughinthrushes. Eventually we all got some views although this species rarely performs particularly well here. Feeding flocks were surprisingly absent, but with persistence we found White-browed Scimitar-babbler, Lesser Shortwing, Vietnamese Cutia, Mountain Bulbul, Ashy Bulbul, Snowy-browed Flycatcher and Large Niltava.
In the afternoon we explored some forest close to Ho Tuyen Lam. A feeding flock included more Vietnamese Cutias, but of much greater interest were several Grey-crowned Crocias, perhaps the most sought after of all the Vietnamese endemics. We enjoyed good views of these smart birds as they fed in the canopy on the forest edge. Other birds in this area included Black-crowned Parrotbill, the local form of Eurasian Jay and Chestnut-vented Nuthatch.
January 20th: Ta Nung, Ho Tuyen Lam.
Weather: Warm and sunny.
We spent a delightful morning birding the small valley at Tan Nung. There was plenty of activity for the first three hours with some great birds looking exquisite in the morning sunshine. The highlights included stunning views of the Grey-crowned Crocias, a cracking Black Eagle circling low, Mrs Gould’s and Black-throated Sunbirds, Little Pied Flycatcher, Drongo Cuckoo and Rufous-backed Sibia. Orange-breasted Laughingthrush again frustrated but the White-cheeked Laughingthrushes performed well.
In the afternoon we visited Ho Tuyen Lam again and despite overcast skies we located our main targets; Vietnamese Greenfinch and the local form of Red Crossbill. Also in the same area were Eurasian Jay, White-cheeked Laughingthrush, Burmese Shrike and Siberian Rubythroat.
January 21st: Forest near Da Lat, Ta Nung.
Weather: Overcast and misty AM, then sunny with broken cloud and breezy.
The morning was a little slow, no doubt due to the rather grey, overcast and misty conditions. However we located some good birds with an obliging Mountain Tailorbird, Grey-cheeked Warbler and Hume’s Treecreeper all new for the list. We also got some good views of the ever elusive Collared Laughingthrush, whilst Blyth’s and White-tailed Leaf Warblers, Orange-bellied Leafbird, Grey-crowned Tit, Golden-throated Barbet, Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker were all noted. Lunch was taken in a local restaurant in Da Lat, regarded as an excellent experience by the group with Common Myna added just afterwards. In the afternoon we again visited Ta Nung. Although typically slow we were able to enjoy some superb views of Black-throated and Mrs Gould’s Sunbird and a Slaty-backed Forktail was seen along the stream here.
January 22nd: Forest near Da Lat. Travel to Saigon.
Weather: Overcast, with wind and rain. Chilly.
Our plan this morning was to head up a different area of forest near Da Lat, but on arrival we found steady rain and breezy conditions with little bird activity. A couple of stops produced very little so we began to head back towards Da Lat while we considered our options. A rest stop requested by Steph resulted in a good birding session lasting a couple of hours! An area of pines hosted Long-tailed Minivet, Chestnut-vented Nuthatch and Slender-billed Oriole. A nearby area of fields and scrub had Chestnut-tailed and Vinous-breasted Starlings, a flock of Red-breasted Parakeets, two Large Cuckooshrikes, Ashy Woodswallow, several Burmese Shrikes, an Oriental Honey-buzzard and a rather distant Brown Prinia. Exploring further we located a couple of Chestnut-capped Babblers, concluding a quite productive session. After a stop for lunch we had a short visit to Da Tan La, seeing little of interest, before catching our flight to Ho Chi Minh City where we had a one night stay and a great meal in Wrap and Roll.
Central Highlands Extension.
January 23rd: Saigon to Da Nang and on to Kham Duc and Lo Xo Pass.
Weather:Overcast with rain and mist.
Those heading back home spent the day in Saigon before taking their respective flights home. Those clients on the extension had another early start and a flight to Da Nang. On arrival in Da Nang we were met by Minh and soon were on our way to Kham Duc. The journey was fairly uneventful, but the first Southern Jungle Corws of the trip were recorded and several Long-tailed Shrikes were seen. We had lunch in Kham Duc before heading up to Lo Xo where our main target was the Black-crowned Barwing. Unfortunately they were not near the road, so a hike up the hillside along a steep and slippery trail was in order. With steady drizzle and low cloud a feature of the walk we were perhaps questioning the merits of our actions. However I located a Barwing flying in, in response to the playback and after a short game of hide and seek we enjoyed splendid views of a pair cuddling up on a branch. Superb! This is a very rare species with the only known site in this area. Once back down on the road we had a look at a fast flowing river that hosted a pair of Plumbeous Water-redstarts, with the few other birds in the area including Blue Rock Thrush.
January 24th:Kham Duc to Mang Den.
Weather: Overcast with drizzle and low cloud at Lo Xo and Mang Den. Sunny during journey!
Another early start and we headed back up to Lo Xo Pass. On arrival the weather was poor so we continued to Mang Den, arriving in the late morning. We had a quick lunch and headed to the forest where there was much low cloud and frequent light rain. Not particularly pleasant for birding and much of what few birds we could see were silhouettes. However, our main target, the endemic Chestnut-eared Laughingthrush which was described to science only quite recently was eventually located and we enjoyed good views as one sang in response to playback. A major success as we became members of a very select group of birders (perhaps numbering less than 20) who have seen this rare bird. Other birds were seen with Pale Blue Flycatcher, Black-chinned Yuhina, Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike and Mrs Gould’s Sunbird amongst those that were more than a silouhette.
January 25th: Mang Den. The travel to Bach Ma with a stop at Lo Xo Pass.
Weather: Overcast then sunny during the journey and back into cloud at Lo Xo and then steady rain thereafter.
We began the day with a return visit to the forest near Mang Den. The weather was a little better than the previous day and we could now regularly see some colour on the birds! Feeding flocks afforded good views and we saw Golden Babbler, Mountain Fulvetta, Rufous-faced Warbler, Scarlet and Grey-chinned Minivets, a group of three Yellow-billed Nutatches, Stripe-breasted Woodpecker, Ratchet-tailed Treepie and Fork-tailed Sunbird. A Greater Coucal was drying out by the roadside. Chestnut-eared Laughingthrushes were responsive to playback, but not eager to perform well! We departed mid-morning for the long and tiring drive to Bach Ma. We made stops for lunch and at Lo Xo. At the latter location we had further excellent views of Black-crowned Barwing, this time with three birds performing well for us. The long, wet drive to Bach Ma eventually ended around 8.30pm.
January 26th: Bach Ma and then travel to Phong Nha.
Weather: Overcast and chilly with light rain for much of the time.
Another day dawned dull, overcast and initially without rain (although that didn’t last). Our first target gave itself up fairly readily with Masked Laughingthrushes easily located and scope views enjoyed by all. Taiga Flycatcher popped up briefly and an unseen Green Sandpiper flew over calling. At the visitor centre we located Rufous-tailed Robin and Chinese Blackbird. Heading into the park the drive up produced Emerald Dove and then superb views of an obliging adult male Siberian Thrush feeding at the roadside. Short-tailed Scimitar-babbler (now renamed Indochinese Wren-babbler) was heard calling but the birds were unresponsive. A small feeding flock included several Black-browned Fulvettas, Ratchet-tailed Treepie and some of the usual suspects. With deteriorating weather we headed back down the mountain, hearing but not seeing Annam Partridge. After lunch around the accommodation block we saw a small flock of Japanese White-eyes, Asian Brown Flycatcher and Stripe-throated Bulbul. As we left Bach Ma a couple of Grey-faced Buzzards were new for the list. The journey to Phong Nha took somewhat longer than expected, with the Vietnamese New Year (Tet) meaning that the roads were even busier and more chaotic than usual. Along the way we noted Cinnamon Bittern amongst a selection of egrets.
January 27th: Phong Nha. Travel to Hue and onwards to Saigon and London.
Weather: Overcast and chilly with light rain.
Our final morning dawned grey and overcast. It wasn’t raining at first, but of course that didn’t last! The main target for the morning was Sooty Babbler, which we duly found with incredible ease and had wonderful views at very close range as a flock clambered over the rocks in front of us. Excellent! Feeding flocks performed well nearby with Scarlet Minivet and Sultan Tit showing especially well at eye-level. A Red Junglefowl was a welcome sight for one group member in particular and two Pied Falconets were seen in the ‘scope. Unfortunately though it was not long before we had to leave the spectacular landscape of Phong Nha in order to head for Hue and our flight to Saigon. The journey proceeded smoothly and we arrived in Saigon in good time to catch our flights to London.
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