Looking for Laughingthrushes
Fellow Anorak Richard wanted to do a recce for future tours of his company, Vietnam Birding. As he needs somebody to swill a couple of brews with, he asked me along. As I am pretty lost on my own, I asked my better half Ha to come along as well; and thus the three of us set off for the Central Highlands, where we would be joined by Le Quy Minh, head of the Ecotourism Department at Bach Ma National park.
The plan was to check out two places: Lo Xo, home of Black-headed Barwing, and Mang Den, where the very rare Chestnut-eared Laughingthrush had been seen before (we never even came close).
Off the beaten track, Vietnam is still pretty cheap. The two largest items were the plane tickets at USD 120.00 a person and the car, which cost us VND 8 Million (ca. USD 500.00) for six days. Accommodation was cheap at around USD 10.00 per room (except for the last night, where we splurged) and meals and beers very cheap.
Accommodation and transportation:
In Tam Duc, where we stayed at the Tam Duc Hotel, and Mang Den, where it was the Hung Yen 3 Hotel, the accommodations were basic but acceptable, though we had to move rooms in Mang Den as the rooms they gave us at first were extremely damp and filthy. But then the rooms were only USD 10.00 a night. The last night in Pleiku we stayed at the Hoang Anh Galai Hotel, a brand-new 4-star hotel and a bargain at less than USD 40.00 a night.
The latter had the worst food of the trip. Though OK, it did not even come close to the food we had at the "Rose" Restaurant in Mang Den. Service there was fantastic and the food outstanding, even outclassing the pretty decent food in Tam Duc.
Cold beer was available everywhere, though there was a decided dearth of my preferred brew, Tiger beer. But a cold Beer Saigon is not too shabby, either.
Whilst usually not a fan of them, 3-in-1 tea and coffee came in handy for a hot wake-up call early in the morning. Vietnamese coffee is good, but just a little too strong for my liking.
A word on Mang Den:
If you want to visit, you had better hurry. Adjacent to Mount Kon Ka Kinh, haunt of the Chestnut-eared Laughingthrush, this place is currently being thrashed. The Vietnamese government has decided to develop it into a resort area, loosely modeled on Da Lat, as an attraction for the oil workers in nearby Quang Ngai (as if they would spend their time there). Currently, massive roads are being built to what used to be pretty decent forest.
Whilst we were there, they celebrated completion of the first part of a project that will eventually consist of (sit down if you have a weak heart):
Here is a picture of what not so long ago was a trail to a nearby waterfall:
We were pretty lucky with the weather. Whilst it was overcast most days, it only really started raining 5 minutes after we were done with birding on the last day. Sun lotion might be a good idea; it is easy to get burnt even on overcast days.
Dangers and annoyances:
Leeches were present on the smaller trails and it was absolutely crawling with them on our last day as it had rained the night before; leech socks are definitely a smart investment and can be bought from the Oriental Bird Club. Gnats at Lo Xo were as bad as I remembered them from last year, long sleeves, trousers and insect repellent are a must here.
As usual we used "A Field Guide to the Birds of South East Asia" by Craig Robson.
Special note of thanks, and disclaimer:
Obviously, I am always happy when I survived yet another trip on Vietnam's murderous roads and thanks must therefore go to Mr. Quan, the driver. Mr. Minh, who was with us the first couple of days, once again showed us his awesome bird-finding and identification skills. Thanks to Richard Craik for the company and for sharing a few cold ones with me. Finally, birding wouldn't have been half as much fun without the presence of my lovely wife, Ha.
As usual, all mistakes are mine and mine alone, and any feedback is welcome at hannostamm(at)hotmail.com.
5th of May:
We took the very first flight to Da Nang and after a short hop and the 2.5 hour drive we arrived in Tam Duc. We quickly checked into the Tam Duc Hotel, in the VIP room no less, grabbed some lunch, and headed for Lo Xo. We first headed for the "Fish-pond Trail", leaving Ha behind as she was worried about leeches.
The first bird we saw, and one of the really common ones here, was Long-tailed Shrike. Also very common, but a lot harder to see, were Asian Koels and Indian Cuckoos, whilst Mountain Imperial Pigeons kept on flying over. Near the pond we saw the prize bird of Lo Xo, four Black-crowned Barwings. With those out of the way, we decided to head for the Dak Plo road for the rest of the afternoon, ticking off House Swift and Plumbeous Water Redstarts on the way.
Bear traps on sale at the market
The road was not accessible with our car due to mud and we thus parked opposite the village inhabited by members of the Xe Dang minority and headed off. Right after the start there is a sign along the lines of "no trespassing" but this does not seem to be a problem anymore. We were stopped a couple of times by wardens but they became very friendly once Minh had explained what we were doing.
By now it was late afternoon and birding was a bit slow. Ashy Woodswallows were hawking from the power lines, and Red-whiskered Bulbuls were everywhere. Golden-throated Barbets were pretty vocal and we did manage to see a couple. Black-collared and Vinous-breasted Starlings always seem to hang out here, and Ha managed to dig up a real skulker, Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler. On the way back we heard what we thought was a Barbet. However, Minh suggested that it could be a Lesser Coucal, and he was proven right a few seconds later when the bird flew out right next to us.
It was getting dark and we headed back for a good dinner and a few beers.
"Bird-of-the-day" were the Barwings for Richard and me; Ha, who did not see them, took the Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler instead.
6th of May:
We had arranged for an early breakfast at the hotel, but the power went off some time during the night and they couldn't cook. However, with the usual Vietnamese "can do" attitude, the hotel staff arranged an alternative venue and we had an excellent omelet. Well, Minh, Richard, and I did as Ha didn't make it out of bed. Whilst sipping our tea, a couple of Large-billed Crows flew over, whilst Spotted Doves lined the road on the way back to the Dak Plo road.
We would spend all day on the road, walking along it for about 6 kilometers. This was the sunniest day of the trip and it got pretty hot; as usual I had not taken any water; something I would regret soon enough.
Once again, birding was pretty slow. We saw much the same staff as the previous day at first, with the first "new" bird being Silver-eared Mesias. Both Streaked Spiderhunters and White-throated Fantails were pretty common, with the latter causing us to reach for our bins way to often in the hope of seeing something different.
Almost at the same time we saw two raptors beginning to soar as temperatures rose, Black Eagle and Mountain Hawk Eagle. A couple of Collared Owlets were calling and playing the tape for a few seconds brought one in right on top of us. I love these tiny owls!
One of the lighter moments of the day came when we had a little chat with a park warden and he confidently identified a bird he frequently saw from our book as......... Wallcreeper:-)
Things started getting a bit livelier around mid-morning, with a couple of mixed-species feeding flocks. The first we came across consisted of Black-throated (Grey-headed) Tits, a couple of Yellow-cheeked Tits, White-rumped Munias, and a Yellow-billed Nuthatch. This beautiful Nuthatch is a near-enDenic with which I had failed miserably to connect before, so I was well pleased.
Grey-chinned Minivets were very common but, as usual, real neck-breakers with a habit of always perching in the tallest trees. Much closer to the ground was a flock of another Annam specialty, Black-hooded Laughingthrush; this was also another of my bogey birds I managed to clear up. On more than one occasion we heard Crested Argus but there was, of course, no chance of seeing one of these enigmatic birds. Another flock brought Black-chinned Yuhinas, Blue-winged Minlas, and Chestnut-fronted Shrike Babbler. Lesser Racket-tailed Drongos seemed everywhere, whilst the single Long-tailed Broadbill only gave us the briefest of views before disappearing.
We stopped for a picnic lunch of burnt(!) boiled eggs, boiled potatoes baguette and a Vietnamese staple: Laughing Cow "cheese". Why couldn't the French, who left excellent bread, coffee and "Crème Caramel" not leave behind a decent cheese? Anyway, we were hungry enough to eat even the plastic cheese.
From here, we headed back into a very quiet afternoon. We did get brief views of Golden Babbler and White-winged Magpies, put there was not much else. But I did manage to get two lifers and thus wasn't complaining too much. On the way back to the hotel we passed a kid that obviously came back from trapping, he had an Indochinese Green Magpie in his cage:-(
Dinner was pretty good again; actually Richard and I ate the same as the previous evening and also stuck to the same beers. Regrettably, Minh told us that he would have to leave to attend to personal matters.
Ha didn't go birding and I forgot to ask Richard, therefore I changed the rules and nominated to birds as "Bird-of-the-day": Black-hooded Laughingthrush and Yellow-billed Nuthatch. Incidentally, Ha surprised as all by managing to find plenty of opportunities to shop in what can best be described as a small village.
7th of May:
Today, we would move on so Ha had no choice but to get up. The plan was to head for the fish pond again, after having dropped off Minh,, but we soon gave up. It had rained earlier and within a few meters there were leeches everywhere and we turned around and headed for Mang Den, seeing an Emerald Dove on the way.
We checked into one of the "villas" at the Hung Yen Hotel. The first rooms were a disaster: apart from them being dirty, they were also too humid to stay in. At first we were told that we couldn't change rooms as the resort was full, which was utter BS; we were the only guests. In general, the staff did not seem to care much about customers so we headed for the "Rose" Cafe in town to eat there. A good choice, both service and food were outstanding here.
This area is the haunt of Chestnut-eared Laughing Thrush, described by Jonathan Eames only 2001. The area where he saw it is closed to foreigners but it has been seen since along the road leading out of Mang Den and this is where we headed (we never did see it and I think there is little chance without a tape. Anyway, with the "development" going on there, it will probably disappear). Near KM 100, Ha spotted a large raptor and we all piled out of the car. Never saw the raptor but it was a good thing that we stopped as that particular place was teeming with birds. Spending two hours here, we saw Puff-throated, Mountain, Black, and Red-whiskered Bulbuls, both Greater and Lesser Racket-tailed Drongos, Rufous-capped and White-tailed Warblers, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher, and White-cheeked Laughingthrushes. The place would also turn out to be a sure-fire place for Yellow-billed Nuthatches, with plenty seen every day, and Black-hooded Laughingthrushes (more often heard than seen). This was probably the best bit of birding for the entire trip, and we also added to our mammal list with both Giant and Pallas' (Red-bellied) Squirrel seen.
We headed back for a fantastic dinner and beer. The restaurant was busy preparing for a party on Saturday to officially inaugurate the construction project, luckily we would be long gone by then.
"Bird-of-the-day" for Ha and me were the White-cheeked Laughingthrushes, there wasn't really anything new for Richard today.
8th of May:
We headed back to the spot we had spent the previous afternoon. However, it was quite windy and birds were generally much harder to come by. Apart from the ever-present Indian Cuckoos, we also heard a single Eurasian Cuckoo. A nice bird I got on by chance was a White-browed Piculet, regrettably it took off before I could get the others on it. Two male Maroon Orioles were a lot more obliging, sticking around until Richard managed to get the scope on them. No chance of scoping the Bay Woodpecker that flew by though. A male Black-throated Sunbird was very nice, as was the Ferruginous Flycatcher perched on a power-line overhead. A Hodgon's Hawk-cuckoo was calling from nearby and had the decency to drop in as response to Richard's tape, as did a beautiful male Red-headed Trogon. By around 11:00 it had become completely dead and we headed back for lunch.
After lunch we headed to what was described in a very recent trip report as a nice little trail to a waterfall, but is now under construction to be what appears to be a 4-lane highway. Thus it wasn't too surprising that we did not see many birds. Again, we heard quite a few Black-hooded Laughingthrushes as well as a couple of White-tailed Robins. Ha finally managed to connect with Golden Babbler and we did see a single Pin-tailed Green Pigeon so it wasn't a complete loss.
We had a bit of a scare heading for dinner when we ran into what appeared to be vampires. Turns out they were the ladies from the Karaoke and Massage at our hotel. With their looks I can well understand why they shun daylight.
Not much in the way of "Bird-of-the-day" but Ha was happy with the Golden Babbler and Ha and I took the Flycatcher.
9th of May:
I thought I was having a bad dream when I was woken up by loud quacking but it turns out that they do indeed keep the ducks in one of the guestrooms at night. TIV (This is Vietnam, a phrase used frequently to explain the bizarre).
We went back to kilometer 100, but again it was very quiet. There were a couple of highlights though, the first a distant Stripe-breasted Woodpecker that I picked up by chance, a lifer for Richard. This was followed by a long quiet spell before we heard what sounded like somebody getting mugged. Whilst still debating what that could be, an Austen's Brown Hornbill flew by and solved the mystery. We should have known as Richard had been playing the tape for days, it was very much one of the target birds for him. A very fitting end to a pretty good trip.
We had originally planned to spend the night in Kom Toum, but as we had to stop birding early because of the rain, we headed for Plei Ku as this was where we would fly from the next morning. We first looked at the Plei Ku Hotel, but it obviously hadn't been upgraded, or cleaned, for decades and we decided to spend a little more for the comforts of the HAGL Plei Ku hotel. Great hotel, even though the food was not quite up to the same standards, built by somebody that made a fortune in logging.
List of Birds: