8th to 10th of February 2009
After missing many of our target birds during our visit last October, admittedly not the best time for this National Park, my wife Ha and I decided to head back for a couple of nights.
Cat Tien is a familiar name to any birder with more than just a passing interest in the birds of Vietnam and one of the must-see places for any birding tour that comes here. Apart from being home to the last few remaining Javan Rhinoceroses in Vietnam, the park also boasts over 100 species of mammals and ca. 350 species of birds.
The park was badly damaged during the Vietnam (or, as the Vietnamese call it, American) war, especially due to the liberal spraying of defoliants such as Agent Orange. Whilst the effects can still be seen today, the park is home to some of the most sought-after Vietnamese species and especially good for pheasants, barbets, woodpeckers, and Pittas.
Whilst illegal logging and poaching pose a huge problem (just before we visited, 7 Rangers got in a free-for-all with 60 Poachers), the Rangers do a fantastic job and birding is both easy and rewarding.
Vietnam on the whole is still pretty cheap. Here some prizes (at the time of writing, 1 USD was VND 17,400):
Our back-packing days are long gone (come to think of it, we were never back-packers) and as such we like our creature comforts. We therefore stayed in the best room available, the USD 30.00 it cost were worth it in my opinion. The room comes with TV (not needed), air-conditioning (very much needed), and a private bathroom (a must). The next lower category is not bad either. A bit cheaper at USD 25.00 but also a lot smaller.
The room at Crocodile Lake is not quite as nice. Particularly nasty are the communal bathrooms, not really a pleasure to use those as they are exceedingly filthy. You will also need to have bed sheets, pillow cases and towels which, in our case, our guide lugged along.
This is a good time to go as it is normally bone-dry and as such there are no leeches. Also, many trees shed their leaves during the dry season, making seeing the birds somewhat easier (and Pittas and Pheasants are easier to hear as they move through the dry litter). The downside is that it can get pretty hot, the walk to and from Crocodile Lake was quite a sweaty affair.
Food and Drink:
The vey first meal we had at the Headquarter was uncharacteristically bad. We figured the staff hadn't made it to the market for a few days and the produce was a bit on the old side. However, the following meals were really quite good. We did not eat at Crocodile Lake, Ha because she wanted to avoid having to use the restroom and I because I am not a big fan of fish, which was all that was on offer.
The Cook (Richard, she remembers you fondly) was extremely helpful and had no problems rustling up a breakfast for us at 05:30 in the morning; which was great.
Beer, soft drinks, and coffee are available both at the Headquarter and Crocodile Lake (though do not expect cold drinks at Crocodile Lake). Drinks at Crocodile Lake are also a lot more expensive as everything has to be brought in via a 5-Kilometer trail (on the back of a motorbike, but still a major effort).
Dangers and annoyances:
There was not a leech to be seen, much to Ha's relief. This changes completely once it rains and it might be a good idea to take leech socks along.
There were not many Mosquitoes at the Head Quarter, but quite a few at Crocodile Lake. Mosquito needs are provided in both places and there is very little risk of Malaria.
Heat exhaustion is a real threat, especially on the slog to and from Crocodile Lake; do take lots of water.
The guide of choice still has to be "A Field Guide to the Birds of South-East Asia" by Craig Robson. A new edition is due February 2009, but for the time being the 2005 edition paperback is the one to take.
For mammals the recently published "A Field Guide to the Mammals of South East Asia" by Charles M. Francis provides the best coverage.
Thanks to Richard Craik of Vietnam Birding for giving us the latest gen from his visit a week earlier. It really helped us to see some of our target birds, though Orange-necked Partridge will have to wait for our next visit.
Mr. Tuan was, once again, an outstanding guide and great company. Excellent eyes, now he needs to work on his English.
The staff were fantastic throughout, a bunch of friendlier and more helpful people like them would be hard to imagine.
How I ever managed to go bird watching without my lovely wife Ha beats me; her presence makes a great trip perfect.
As usual all mistakes, omissions and errors are all mine. Drop me a line at hannostamm (at) hotmail (dot) com.
8th of February:
After saying good-bye to some VIP guests at the hotel I work at, we finally managed to hit the road for the 4 hours it takes to get from Phan Thiet to Cat Tien. We stopped for an OK-ish sort of lunch where I managed to impress the waiter with my Vietnamese language skills, ordering a "Lipton" tea for my wife. He figured that I pronounced "Lipton" just as a native Vietnamese speaker would (I did not have the heart to explain to him that it is actually an English word). They were also amazed at the fact that I bought 10 lottery tickets from a man that must have been hit by Napalm during the war. Little did they know that it was Ha's money; like most people married to Vietnamese I never have a single Cent in my pocket. Incidentally, the tickets cost a total of USD 6.00 but this was apparently unusual enough that the local hooker showed up to take a look at this person throwing around money like that.
Anyway, from there it was only another hour until we reached the ferry that would take us across to the Headquarter. We quickly checked in... No, actually it was not that quick as no transaction in Vietnam is ever straight forward. First, one needs to inquire about the health of the grandmother, the state of the rice paddy, the weather for the last three weeks, etc. All the time I am going insane as there is birding to be done. After what seemed like hours, but was probably 10 minutes, we managed to check in and hit the road that goes from the HQ towards Crocodile Lake.
The very first bird we saw was a female Tickell's Blue Flycatcher right outside our room. It was still fairly early in the afternoon and quite hot, and the going was quite slow at the beginning with not much more than a few Stripe-throated Bulbuls. However, once it started cooling down a little, things picked up. We had great views of a male White-browed Piculet taking apart some Bamboo; this is one of our favorite birds for both of us.
Red-breasted Parakeets are very common enough and easy to see flying overhead; they announce their presence vocally enough. Also vocal were a couple of Coppersmith Barbets, though we did not actually manage to see them. Barbets in general are well-represented here and we would see Lineated, Red-vented, and Blue-eared Barbets in the course of the afternoon.
Three Woolly-necked Storks flying right over us against an achingly blue sky made for great views, as did a total of about 6 Oriental Pied Hornbills. The only down-side was a group of extremely noisy Vietnamese that went for a walk along the same road (seeing your average Vietnamese walk any distance at all is surprising enough). Vietnamese have an aversion to quietness and the quieter it is, the louder they become. This is why Cat Tien should be avoided at all costs on weekends and holidays.
I have never seen as many White-rumped Shamas as on this trip, there was one calling every few meters. On the other hand, we saw only one Oriental Magpie-robin, strange for what is normally a very common bird.
There were a couple of Bronzed Drongos about and lots of Greater Racket-tailed Drongos as well as two Racket-tailed Treepies. Near a what is river crossing during the wet season we spent a few minutes watching a beautiful male Red Junglefowl foraging before turning around and heading back.
Just before it got dark, three Great Slaty Woodpeckers crossed the road in front of us. The "Great" in the name is certainly no exaggeration, they are huge!
Punctual as ever, the first Great Eared Nightjars appeared right on the dot at 18:00. I just love their call, a very loud whistle that would go on all night. Also calling was a Brown Hawk Owl; we managed to locate it on a nearby branch where it was shortly joined by a second bird.
We had booked a night-drive for 19:00 and thus Ha headed for a shower and I headed for a couple of cold ones. Once Ha was clean on the outside and I on the inside, we clambered onto the back of a pick-up for the one-hour night drive. We saw a couple of Siamese Hares, a few Wild Pigs as well as lots of Sambar and Barking Deer. Bird-wise we had very good views of both Great Eared as well as Large-tailed Nightjars. We also spooked an Owl that looked very much like a Buffy Fish Owl.
After an hour it was back for dinner and a few cold ones (they had Saigon Beer, so Ha joined in). We also chose our "Bird-of-the-Day" which was the White-browed Piculet for both of us.
9th of February:
We had arranged with the cook to have breakfast at 05:30 and it worked. An omelet and a Baguette later we set off towards the "Heaven Rapid" trail.
The 1.7 Kilometer walk to the turn-off to this trail took us much longer than anticipated, as there were plenty of good birds about. A large tree right at the beginning of our walk was home to a male Golden-fronted Leafbird, three Vernal Hanging Parrots, and a flock of Thick-billed Green Pigeons. The latter were very common, but looking at each one we saw paid off as we also found a couple of Pompadour Green Pigeons.
Ha pointed out an Ashy Drongo, but somehow her description did not gel with what I was seeing. Took us a couple of seconds before we realized that she was looking at the Drongo whilst I was looking at an Orange-breasted Trogon that was sitting just a few centimeters away from it.
Our first highlight of the morning was a Golden-crested Myna sitting in a huge, naked, tree together with a couple of Black-naped Orioles and Black-crested Bulbuls. A lifer for both of us and a very pretty bird on top of it.
Very vocal Striped Tit-babblers where everywhere whilst the Puff-throated Babblers were a %)(#)&! to get to grips with as they were skulking around on the ground (I thought they were mice or shrews at first). The third species of Babblers seen that morning were Scaly-crowned Babblers.
By the time we reached the rapids, which were not very impressive due to the dry season, it was getting hot and it was obviously too late for the Orange-necked Partridges we were hoping to find here. Thus, we had some tea and biscuits and slowly headed back towards the HQ. A fairly open patch turned out to be a very good spot, with Ochraceous Bulbuls, a Verditer Flycatcher, a pair of Violet Cuckoos, a female Banded Kingfisher, a female Heart-spotted Woodpecker. a Drongo Cuckoo and a male Purple-throated Sunbird all seen within 5 minutes; one of those 5-minute spells that happen much to infrequently but which make birding such a fascinating endeavor for me.
It was really getting hot now and avian activity slowed down considerably. A Crested Serpent-eagle soared overhead for a while, calling loudly, joined at one point by an Osprey but that was pretty much it and we headed for lunch and cold drinks.
At 14:00 we boarded the pick-up and headed for Crocodile Lake. Not much on the way except a Black-and-Red Broadbill that flew across in front of us.
After a short drive we reached the beginning of the trail from where we would have to foot it. Within 20 meters of setting off, we came across a Bar-bellied Pitta, a beautiful male. This surely has to be one of the prettiest birds in Vietnam and we managed to get prolonged views of the bird.
Just a little bit further a female Siamese Fireback slunk off into the undergrowth; seemed to be a single or the male had already high-tailed it.
More movement by the side of the path. Just as I am about to get on it, my bloody phone rings, it's the Boss. Damn, damn, damn but no choice: I have to answer. Whilst the boss man is on about something of little importance, Ha indicates that they are watching a male Germain's Peacock Pheasant!!! Obviously, the bird is gone by the time I managed to get off the phone. Serves me right for not switching it off.
We spent a couple of minutes hoping the bird would reappear, but any hope vanished as we were overtaken by a noisy group lead by an even noisier Vietnamese guide (the guide was not from the park). Why some tour companies send their guests on a trip like this beats me, it is not enjoyable for them nor for anybody else.
As the group pretty much ruined the bird watching, we hustled on to the lake, only flushing an Emerald Dove as we raced through the forest. It sure was hot and, as usual, I was carrying way too much stuff. When we heard Grey-faced Tit-babblers just before reaching the station, I couldn't even be bothered to try and look for them; I was just too tired.
We quickly dumped our stuff in the room and headed for the viewing platform. On the way, Ha took a look at the bathroom cum toilet, the look on her face told me more than I wanted to know about the state of the facilities.
It was nice to park on the platform and the beer tasted good, even though it was a Heineken and warm.
We scanned the lake and quickly ticked off a couple of Ospreys hunting, Pheasant-tailed Jacanas, Purple (or Black-backed, they have been split by some authorities) Swamphens and a couple of Woolly-necked Storks. The absolute highlight however, and one of the main reasons we slogged here, was a huge male Green Peafowl that our guide Tuan discovered at the end of the lake. This bird alone made lugging the scope along well worthwhile.
A male Crimson Sunbird was the last bird we saw before it got dark and the Great Eared Nightjars started coming out. An almost full moon allowed us to watch their antics whilst drinking plenty of warm beer (me) or rice wine (Tuan and Ha). The only discord was the same Vietnamese guide that had us overtaken earlier sprouting non-stop BS and complaining about Vietnam. I could sense all the other Vietnamese, Ha included, getting quite miffed. Luckily, he eventually shut up before someone decked him. We also saw a couple of Siamese Crocodiles, or rather their eyes, when we shone our torches on the lake surface. Extinct in the wild, these crocs were re-introduced into Crocodile Lake where they will hopefully start breeding again.
Ha's "Bird-of-the-Day" was the Germain's Peacock Pheasant (not that she was trying to rub it in), I chose the Siamese Fireback.
10th of February:
After a surprisingly good night's sleep, we met early for noodle soup; we tried to be back on the trail before the back-packers and their obnoxious guide got up. We did have time to tick a few birds around the lake that we had not seen the previous day: Bronze-winged Jacanas, Common and Stork-billed Kingfishers, Common Moorhen, and a small flock of Lesser Whistling-Ducks.
At the place where we had heard the Babblers the previous day, a quick playing of the tape almost immediately brought in two Grey-faced Tit-babblers, whilst we spotted a Greater Flameback from the boardwalk leading from the camp.
A little further on we heard a Hornbill and after clambering over some rocks off the trail, we managed to locate a male Great Hornbill. Whilst we only heard Yellow-cheeked Gibbons in the distance, we did see a group of Pig-tailed Macaques crushing through the treetops on our approach.
We thankfully had the trail to ourselves, that is probably why we managed to sneak up on a Scaly-breasted Partridge feeding by the side of the trail. In almost the same place we also heard a Germain's Peacock Pheasant, it responded to the tape and I finally got to tick it off as well. I managed to just see it before the group from hell came along once more. The stupid tour guide saw what we were doing but nevertheless stopped right next to us to discuss the group's plans. I could have strangled the idiot and told him in Vietnamese that he was talking too loudly. He looked like he was going to make something out of it, I was hoping he would, but then decided to just mutter something about me being difficult and to bugger off.
Just before reaching the car, we added a Great Iora to our trip list as well as both Trogons, Red-headed and Orange-breasted Trogons.
And that was that. We did see two more species on the way back to the HQ, a white-morphed Asian Paradise Flycatcher and a Black-capped Kingfisher. We also finally saw a male Siamese Fireback.
We had our last meal at the Head Quarter and also chose our "Bird-of-the-Day"; obviously the Germain's Peacock Pheasant for me whilst it was the Scaly-breasted Partridge for Ha.
List of Birds seen:
List of Mammals seen: