VIETNAM BIRDING TRIP REPORT
My scouting trip to Vietnam was planned two years ago with the idea of offering tours to Vietnam going forward. Due to some unforeseen circumstances, the trip was postponed for a year until 2016. Bird activity was unusually slow throughout the tour, so we missed a number of species we expected to pick up. Trees in the dry Dipterocarp forest of Yok Don and other sites still had most of their leaves, which normally would have dropped by December, so birds were harder to see in the canopy. Also, birds were not singing as much as usual for the time of year. We suspected that the El Niño taking place in the Pacific greatly affected seasonality throughout SE Asia in 2016. In general, birding in Vietnam is more difficult than in Thailand. Birds are more wary due to frequent hunting pressure in most areas, including many of the national parks.
Jan 9: Up early for an early breakfast. Didn't sleep at all during the night due to jet lag, but wasn't feeling tired during the 3-hour transfer to Cuc Phuong National Park. At least it was on a Sunday or it would have taken an additional hour due to the heavier traffic in Hanoi on work days. After arrival and lunch, we went out birding along a road and a trail inside the park. Habitat was good evergreen (which in the tropics means broad-leaved) forest. Despite overcast, birding was slow. We did hear Bar-bellied Pitta near the trail and tried to lure it out with playback. The guide had a brief glimpse. I didn't see it. We also tried for Red-collared Woodpecker, which was heard but never seen. The main highlights were decent views of Fugian Niltava, a new bird for me, and a flock of 9 White-winged Magpies that were starting nest-building. We headed back to our rooms about 5:00pm and it was dark by around 6:00pm.
Jan 10: Up early again and under way by 6:00am. Still just first light then but we wanted to look for thrushes along the road. We didn't see any, but we did see several Japanese Thrushes along the stone walkway we took to look for pittas. We soon heard Bar-bellied Pitta, and after considerable effort had decent views of a male in pretty dim light. A bit farther up the trail plus some stone steps steeply up, we found Limestone Wren-Babbler. They appeared to be nesting there. The subspecies in Vietnam is a probable future split as it looks quite different from the Thai subspecies. We then drove farther down the road to the restaurant and accommodations inside the park. From there we walked a paved road and then stone trail into the forest. Along the road we saw Pied Falconet very far away perched on top of a bare tree snag. Near the start of the trail we picked up Gray-crowned Warbler. The trail up a lot of stone steps leads to an area where Red-collared Woodpecker was seen by the guide 9 days earlier. We tried hard for it with playback but never got any response. We did have decent views of Rufous-tailed Robin. On the way back down we also had a good though partially obscured view of Green-billed Malkoha in thick mid-story canopy. Along the road walking back we picked up Red-vented Barbet perched at the top of a bare tree in the open. After lunch we checked a different trail, again uphill on stone steps, looking for the Tonkin race of Scaly-breasted Partridge, split as Tonkin Partridge by some authorities but not by Clements, and Red-collared Woodpecker without any success. It was very quiet. We did see Gray-backed Shrike near the garden at the start of the trail.
Jan 11: Another early morning, hitting the road at 6:00am. Lots of thrushes along the road this time, mostly Japanese Thrush but also a couple Orange-headed Thrushes and a Gray-backed Thrush. We also flushed a Eurasian Woodcock that was in the middle of the road. Along the same trail we had hiked the previous day, we soon found a male and female Blue-rumped Pitta. With some effort we had multiple brief but decent looks at it. A bit farther up the trail, we spotted a Bar-bellied Pitta, which nicely crossed the trail just a few meters in front of us. Our main target bird this day was Red-collared Woodpecker, a secretive and elusive woodpecker that groups see maybe one time out of ten trips. It doesn't call much and is quite uncommon. We went to a known location for the bird and soon heard it call just once or twice. After a lot of playback and waiting, we saw two individuals fly rapidly by. The guide actually saw the male go up a small tree-trunk, but I missed that. Then with more time and effort, we were able to ferret out the adult and a juvenile male for quite good looks. The birds were feeding and working their way slowly up an open tree trunk where we could have gotten good photos, but just then a loud group of tourists came down the trail and scared the birds off. After lunch we hiked a different trail looking for Tonkin Partridge and heard one calling but could never get it in the open. In addition to the above we saw Collared Owlet, Gray-headed Woodpecker, Gray-throated Babbler, Scaly-crowned Babbler, Puff-throated Babbler, Limestone Wren-Babbler, and Blue-throated Flycatcher. The guide also saw the secretive Asian Stubtail briefly deep in a thicket, which I missed.
Jan 13: We did some early birding near the lodge and had a quick look at a female Blue-rumped Pitta along the road. Back at the lodge a bird wave came through, featuring Common Iora, Black-crested Bulbul, Stripe-throated Bulbul, Yellow-browed Warbler, Common Tailorbird, Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker, and Fork-tailed Sunbird. After breakfast we drove about an hour to Van Long Nature Reserve. The main attraction there is the endangered Delacour's Langur, a striking black and white primate that lives on cliffs and rocky mountainsides. We traversed the lagoon in a two-person bamboo paddle-boat with a hull lined with cement and powered by a young person "womaning" the oars. She had incredible eyesight and spotted the langurs with her naked eyes while we could barely pick them up by binoculars. We eventually found three small groups, the closest at the far side of the lagoon but still not very close. Interesting birds we found on the lagoon included White-browed Crake, Watercock, Yellow Bittern, Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Common Kingfisher, and Yellow-bellied Prinia. From there we drove 3 hours to Tam Dao, stopping for lunch en route. Tam Dao is a higher mountain and is typically fogged in. This day was no exception. We climbed hundreds of stone steps above the village looking especially for Gray Laughingthrush. We heard one at a far distance and that was it. The guide did see the black-billed subspecies of Blue Whistling-Thrush, and we both saw Gray-backed Thrush through the mist.
Jan 14: Tam Dao is known for its rainy and foggy conditions, and we experienced both. We waited until 8:00am for the rain to stop, but the fog didn't lift. We walked a flat road that leads to the water treatment plant followed by a trail through extensive stands of bamboo. The fog made birding a bit difficult as it was hard to pick out any colors. We encountered several mixed flocks that moved rapidly through mid-story canopy. The main species in the flocks was David's Fulvetta. Also in the flocks were good numbers of the very range-restricted Chestnut Bulbul. In the bamboo along the trail we found a flock that included several Short-billed Parrotbills. On the way back along the road we encountered a raucous flock that of several Black Bulbuls, including both black-headed and white-headed subspecies. After lunch we climbed the steps above the town looking for Gray Laughingthrush again. It was extremely quiet and we saw virtually nothing even though the fog had lifted somewhat. We did hear Green Cochoa lower down than normal and saw a bird of about the right size drop down from a tree to the ravine below, but we couldn't get any id on it. Thus, the afternoon was pretty much a bust.
Jan 15: We woke up to even heavier fog than the previous day. After rain abated around 7:45am, we went back to the same trail as the previous day. We found even fewer flocks than the day before, but the fog lifted along some parts of the trail. As a result, we had better views of David's Fulvetta, Chestnut Bulbul, Black Bulbul, and Yellow-bellied Warbler. In the dense stands of bamboo we found a small flock of Short-billed Parrotbills and had a brief but excellent view of one. On the way back we heard Gray Laughingthrush in dense understory above the gravel access road. With some patience we had brief looks at 4 individuals flitting deep inside thickets. After lunch we intended to stop at several lower elevation sites on our way to Hanoi. We did stop at one site, where we found White-tailed Magpie-Robin, Sooty Babbler, Pin-striped Tit-Babbler, Black-browed Fulvetta, and Rufescent Prinia. However, fog and rain made birding unproductive, so we drove from there straight away to Hanoi. Our driver was quite adept at driving through the insanity that is Hanoi traffic, rife with thousands of motorbikes intermixed with cars, buses, bicyclists, and pedestrians all trying to gain advantage in the battle for progress along narrow busy streets. We finally arrived (safely) at our hotel 2 hours after leaving Tam Dao, a distance of 60km.
Jan 16: We departed our hotel at 5:30am for the airport to catch a 7:30am flight to Ban Me Thuot. From there it's a 45min drive to Yok Don National Park. After arrival and check-in, we did a little birding around the restaurant, where we picked up Coppersmith Barbet, Black-naped Oriole, Ashy Drongo, Sooty-headed Bulbul, Golden-crested Myna, Golden-fronted Leafbird, Yellow-vented Flowerpecker, and Olive-backed Sunbird. We then walked a short distance down to the river where we found Crested Serpent-Eagle perched in a distant tree top, Shikra, Asian Barred-Owlet, and Chestnut-headed Bee-eater. Later in the afternoon, after it had cooled down slightly, we walked across the bridge into dry Dipterocarp forest. There we soon found our primary target bird, Black-headed Woodpecker for very good views. We also had brief looks at our second target, Rufous Treepie, which we saw better next morning. Additional interesting birds seen included Red Junglefowl, Indian Roller, Lineated Barbet, Gray-capped Woodpecker, Ashy Minivet, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, White-crested Laughingthrush, a very brief glimpse of Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrush as it flew across the trail, and Asian Brown Flycatcher.
Jan 17: We were up early to beat the heat at Yok Don and went out birding until about 8:30am. Notable birds we saw included Green Imperial-Pigeon (only seen by the guide), Crested Treeswift (a flyover), Common Flameback, Indochinese Cuckooshrike, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Black-collared Starling, and Purple Sunbird. We also had very good views of two Woolly-necked Storks that flew overhead. From Yok Don we drove for 6 hours to Dalat, stopping outside town in the Ta Nung Valley for some birding. Certainly the major highlight was 4 Gray-crowned Crocias atop a distant mostly dead tree, giving us good scope views. The guide also saw Black-crowned Parrotbill in distant lower canopy. I never could get any kind of look at them. Other birds seen there included Mountain Imperial-Pigeon (a fly-by), good views of two Blue-bearded Bee-eaters, Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrike (seen only by the guide), Burmese Shrike, Flavescent Bulbul, Mountain Bulbul, Mountain Fulvetta (seen briefly only by the guide), Blue-winged Minla, and Asian Fairy-bluebird (a flyover). We arrived in the touristy city of Dalat about 5:45pm, checked in and ate in a nearby restaurant.
Jan 18: After early breakfast we returned to Ta Nung Valley and spent the morning birding along the gravel road going down to the river. At the car park we quickly found Green-backed Tit and Vietnamese Greenfinch. Down the gravel road we had very good views of Black-headed Sibia and, with some effort, Black-crowned Parrotbill. Strangely, there was no sign of White-cheeked Laughingthrush, which is usually there and vocal. We did have a brief sighting of Barred Cuckoo-Dove and distant but fairly prolonged looks at Yellow-vented Pigeon. We also saw Green-billed Malkoha high in a tree but in the open, good scope looks at Indochinese Barbet, several Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrikes, White-throated Fantail, Chestnut-vented Nuthatch, Black-crested Bulbul, Flavescent Bulbul, Mountain Bulbul, Hill Prinia, Rufous-backed Sibia (very briefly and not very well), Verditer Flycatcher, Mugimaki Flycatcher, Blue-winged Leafbird, Black-throated Sunbird, and Gould's Sunbird (which landed directly overhead). In late afternoon we drove up to Hotuyen Lam, a lake and resort area at higher elevation. There we found our two main target birds, Slender-billed Oriole, which we saw briefly but well, and a pair of Black-headed Cutia, which were mating high in a pine tree and then afterward feeding up there. We also saw Black-winged Cuckooshrike, Sooty-headed Bulbul, Red Crossbills (which flew over and were seen only as silhouettes), and several other species seen earlier in the day.
Jan 19: We spent the morning in pine and broadleaf forest at higher elevation on Mt Lang Bian. The park ranger drove us up a good distance in his 4-wheel-drive truck. One of our main target birds was Collared Laughingthrush. We spent considerable time with several different individuals trying to lure them in with playback. On some days they are quite responsive, but not for us. All we got were fleeting glimpses. We did encounter several mixed flocks along the trail. Birds seen included Hodgson's Hawk-Cuckoo (very briefly), Gray-chinned Minivet, Dalat Shrike-Babbler (only a quick view), Clicking Shrike-Babbler (seen very well), Black-throated Tit, Bianchi's Warbler, Gray-cheeked Warbler, Rufous-capped Babbler, White-browed Scimitar-Babbler, Collared Laughingthrush (seen very briefly and not well), Black-headed Sibia, Orange-bellied Leafbird, and Gould's Sunbird. We also had a very good view and photo op of Golden-throated Barbet down low, and the guide flushed a Rufous-throated Partridge from along the trail, which I missed. In the afternoon we returned to the opposite side of the lake area. Our main target bird was White-throated Laughingthrush, which we finally heard, but it was not at all responsive to playback. We did have a good photo ops of Blue-winged Minla and Chestnut-vented Nuthatch and saw Barred Cuckoo-Dove (a fly-by), Gray-capped Woodpecker, Chestnut-capped Babbler (just flying out of a bush and not seen well), a female Snowy-browed Flycatcher, Gray Bushtit, Fire-breasted Flowerpecker, and Vietnamese Greenfinch.
Jan 20: We spent most of the morning hiking uphill above the lake area. Before starting uphill we spotted a Mountain Hawk-Eagle perched in a tree in the open. We had great views and photo ops. We also saw White-throated Kingfisher perched on a wire across a ravine from the road and had good views of Indochinese Barbet that landed in bushes along the road. On the trail up we soon found Dalat Shrike-Babbler and Gray-crowned Crocias that both showed very well. Farther up the trail we got good looks at Rufous-backed Sibia, which I hadn't seen well previously. We found a Large Niltava lurking far back in thick understory. We encountered a good sized mixed flock featuring Gray-chinned Minivet, Clicking Shrike-Babbler, White-bellied Erpornis, Gray-headed Canary-Flycatcher, Yellow-cheeked Tit, Black-throated Tit, Yellow-billed Nuthatch, Black-crested Bulbul, White-spectacled Warbler, Black-crowned Parrotbill, Mountain Fulvetta, Golden-fronted Leafbird, and Gould's Sunbird. On the way back down the trail we spotted two Black-hooded Laughingthrushes feeding in the open on a trail connecting to the one we were on. We soon saw five more of them as they flew across the trail, along with two White-crested Laughingthrushes. In the afternoon we returned to Ta Nung Valley. The guide saw Black-backed Forktail as we scrambled up a rocky riverbed. The bird flew and disappeared before I could see it. Of more interest was a flock of about 30 White-cheeked Laughingthrushes feeding in a small tree, then flying across the gravel road and through treetops and understory. We also saw a couple more Gray-crowned Crocias. This species was very evident for us, but some groups have great difficulty seeing it. Other than that, birding was very slow in the afternoon.
Jan 21: We spent the morning back in Ta Nung Valley looking primarily for Orange-breasted Laughingthrush. We did encounter a flock that we heard in the understory not far away, but we could never get any sightings. We did see the same large flock of White-cheeked Laughingthrush as the day before early in the morning. Our best bird of the morning was Rufous-browed Flycatcher, a skulker that is only occasionally picked up by birding groups. In the afternoon we returned to the lake area to look especially for Indochinese Green-Magpie. We did find them but not for any kind of view. They flew around and above us high in the canopy where all one could see were fleeting looks at a large bird. We encountered the same flock of Black-hooded Laughingthrush as the day before and this time I got onto the White-crested Laughingthrush. We also finally saw Long-tailed Broadbill, rather distant and high in the canopy but still very good views of both front and back. We stayed until after dark and quickly found Gray Nightjar, which flew around us in our spotlight.
Jan 22: We departed early for Di Linh, wanting to check the forest in the pass outside town for Orange-breasted Laughingthrush before two other birding groups in the area had arrived. By the time we got there at 8:00am it was already sunny and getting hot. Bird activity was very low and we had very little sign of the laughingthrush other than a couple call notes we couldn't pin down. We did see Red-billed Scimitar-Babbler, new for the trip. In late afternoon we returned to the same section of road and saw Rufous-winged Buzzard and Black Eagle soaring overhead, the first rather low and showing well and the other quite high and just flying past. Shortly before dusk we had good views of Barred Cuckoo-Dove and Pin-tailed Pigeon perched in a tree very near one another.
Jan 23: Another early start, leaving at 5:30am. We stopped for breakfast at a restaurant near the pass. After breakfast we birded the road a bit looking for Orange-breasted Laughingthrush, without success. We did have a good photo op of Indochinese Barbet and Scarlet Minivet and saw Black-crowned Parrotbill. We then hiked up a fairly steep trail into the forest. The guide played a tape for the laughingthrush, and amazingly one responded just 10m or so away. With a little patience we had fabulous views of a singing bird perched on a log in the open. I took photos and my guide took photos and some video. We watched it for several minutes before it finally flew. We continued up the trail hoping to find Green Cochoa without any luck. We did briefly spot a male and female Silver Pheasant in thick vegetation before they melted away into the forest. We found a pair of Vernal Hanging-Parrots high in canopy but somewhat open so we took some long distance photos. We had very good views of a male and female Gray-chinned Minivet. In the afternoon we walked a different trail looking for Indochinese Magpie, which we finally saw in poor light and mostly flying between trees very late afternoon. We tried hard for photos of Bay Woodpecker, which we saw well but not where we could get photos. We did have a good photo op of Red-billed Scimitar-Babbler that responded well to playback. Back on the road we saw a pair of Gray-faced Tit-Babblers. En route back to town we saw Brown Shrike and White-throated Kingfisher on the phone wires.
Jan 24: In the morning we birded the road and several short trails leading off the road. We tried hard for Bar-bellied Partridge, which the guide saw twice but I didn't see before they melted into the forest. We had stunning views of a male Red-headed Trogon but got no photos. We had several long looks at Maroon Oriole, the first time I saw it perched and could see the color on it. We spotted a Gray-faced Tit-Babbler skulking in underbrush along the road. We had a good though distant look at Chestnut-headed Bee-eater and had nice views of Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike, which was with a mixed flock along with Ashy Minivet, Ashy Drongo, Flavescent Bulbul, Streak-eared Bulbul, Gray-eyed Bulbul, Black-crowned Parrotbill, Red-billed Scimitar-Babbler, Gray-throated Babbler, Mountain Fulvetta, and Hill Blue-Flycatcher. We also raised up another Orange-breasted Laughingthrush in thick understory just off the road, which we saw briefly and not as well as the day before. At mid-day we transferred to Cat Tien National Park, about a 3 hour drive including a stop for lunch. In late afternoon we walked a few trails near the accommodations where we found a distant Coppersmith Barbet, Lesser Yellownape that showed well for photos, Red-breasted Parakeet, Common Iora, Hair-crested Drongo, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Pale-footed Bush-Warbler (see only briefly), Buff-breasted Babbler, White-rumped Shama, and Tickell's Blue-Flycatcher perched on a log over the trail. On the way back to our accommodations we saw two Crow-billed Drongos perched on a wire.
Jan 25: The park ranger at Cat Tien drove us out to the trailhead of the Crocodile Lake trail. Near there on the dirt road we had excellent early morning views of two Oriental Pied-Hornbills that landed in a bare tree. Nearby in another bare tree we picked up Blossom-headed Parakeet. Our main target bird was Germain's Peacock-Pheasant, which we never heard or saw. We may have flushed one just as we got back to the trailhead but didn't see it. The guide saw a female Bar-bellied Pitta, which I missed. We did have a decent look at a female Orange-breasted Trogon. We found a Banded Kingfisher hiding back in mid-story canopy, typical for this forest kingfisher. A pair of Black-hooded Orioles flew overhead and disappeared. We had several good looks at Black-naped Monarch. We also picked up Black-headed Bulbul, Streak-eared Bulbul, and Ochraceous Bulbul. On the way back down the trail we had good though brief views of two Scaly-breasted Partridge lurking in the underbrush near the trail. We had distant and fleeting views of White-crested Laughingthrush through thick understory and very good looks at White-throated Rock-Thrush. During noon hour we saw a Yellow-cheeked Gibbon behind the headquarters buildings. It was possibly re-introduced from the gibbon rehab center there though we don't really know. In late afternoon the ranger dropped us off about 5km on a side road leading to the botanical gardens. We soon heard and eventually lured in two juvenile and one adult Great Slaty-Woodpeckers. We spent considerable time trying to get photos, but they only briefly showed in the open so our success with photography was limited. Shortly thereafter we spotted a Heart-spotted Woodpecker, which we saw pretty well. We lured a Blue-eared Barbet with playback. It landed very high in a tree so it was difficult to see all its colors. We had a quick look at Blyth's Paradise-Flycatcher as it flew by along the trail. Very late in the afternoon we saw (and heard the massive wing beats of) a Great Hornbill flying over, somewhat hidden by canopy. We had nice views of a group of endangered Black-shanked Douc Langurs in a leafless tree. We also saw seven Dusky Broadbills perched in a leafless tree.
Jan 26: We rode in the back of the park ranger's pickup truck toward the back side of Crocodile Lake. We saw and photographed several male Green Peafowl, which come out into fairly open fallow fields before 7:00am and again after 5:30pm. We also saw male and female Red Junglefowl. We spent much of the morning trying for Orange-necked Partridge and Germain's Peacock-Pheasant, both heard fairly close in thick bamboo but neither seen. Interesting birds seen included Red Collared-Dove, Orange-breasted Pigeon, Ashy-headed Pigeon(a split from Pompodour Pigeon), Oriental Pied-Hornbill, Lesser Yellownape, a female Laced Woodpecker, Black-and-buff Woodpecker (seen in flight but seen better that afternoon), a perched Collared Falconet (a bird rarely seen in the park), Ashy Woodswallow (seven perched in a bare tree), Tickell's Blue-Flycatcher, and Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker. In the afternoon we returned to the same road. Very few birds were seen except several Green Peafowl, Lesser Coucal, Oriental Magpie-Robin, and Thick-billed Flowerpecker. We also saw a male and several female Sambar Deer, Red Muntjac, and several Wild Boar. At dusk we saw four Greater Eared-Nightjars and one Large-tailed Nightjar.
Jan 27: We spent the morning birding a thick bamboo area. Two of our main target birds, Orange-necked Partridge and Germain's Peacock-Pheasant completely eluded us. They weren't even calling, unlike the day before. We spent much of the morning trying to photograph our third target bird, Pale-headed Woodpecker, a denizen of bamboo thickets and "forest". We saw it many times but it was rarely perched in the open, so our efforts at photography produced only limited results. In the afternoon we birded a different area of bamboo. There we flushed a Germain's Peacock-Pheasant but couldn't see much more than a bird flying out in panic. We did find Arnold's Babbler, a new bird for the trip. It was hot and muggy most of the day, though cloudy in early morning, which perhaps explains the low bird activity we experienced all day.
Jan 28: We again looked for our main target birds during the morning. We did hear Germain's Peacock-Pheasant fairly close but couldn't lure it in for a look. Our only new bird was Large Hawk-Cuckoo, which flew from a distant bush into bamboo forest. We also saw a group of macaques that consisted mostly of Stump-tailed Macaques, including the male, but also included two female Crab-eating Macaques. After early lunch, we set out for Saigon, about 4 hours drive away. We arrived at the hotel about 4:00pm.