Returning for Laughers and Vampires
Two years ago, Richard Craik of Vietnam Birding, Le Quy Minh from the Bach Ma National Park, my wife Ha and I went to the Central Highlands to look for a little-known species, Chestnut-eared Laughingthrush and failed miserably; in particular as we had no tape to lure it out. Since then, there is a recording from Clide Carter. Richard passed this recording on to Simon Mahood and Dave Edwards and, armed with this, they had no problem seeing the Laughingthrushes.
Upon hearing this, Richard quickly cobbled together an itinerary for the four of us and we set off for Mang Den, planning a stop at Lo Xo to look for Black-crowned Barwing and Red-tailed Laughingthrush.
Whilst Vietnam has become pretty expensive in the cities, rural areas are still cheap; this is also helped by the relatively weak currency. A large dinner was usually around the USD 15.00 mark for all of us, this included drinks. Accommodation was around USD 20.00 a night for large, spacious rooms. The flights HCMC - Da Nang and Plei Ku - HCMC were just over USD 100.00 a person and the van was just over USD 70.00 a day.
Accommodation and food:
As usual, we stayed in the Kham Duc Hotel in Kham Duc; the closest sizeable town to the Barwing site. We were actually in the "VIP rooms" which were pretty large and they even had cable TV so that Richard could catch up on the English Premier League. We did not like the hotel in Mang Den so much during our last visit and booked in the Rose Hotel that we had visited then. They booted us out on the way there and put us in the Hoa Sim Hotel. This turned out not to be good at all. The hotel was filthy, and there was no power or water. Long story, but we eventually ended up at the Hung Yen 3 Hotel again, the hotel we had stayed at 2 years earlier.
In Kham Duc we ate at the Sau Binh Restaurant; as do all visiting birders. We also tried the owner's new restaurant, the imaginatively named Sau Binh 2 restaurant. Food in both was very good though service in the latter left a little to be desired.
In Mang Den food ranged from the so-so to near inedible. The Rose Hotel's restaurant has gone down-hill since our last visit; the food at the Hoa Sim Hotel is an outright health risk and, whilst the food at the Tam Nha Restaurant was not too bad; we were somewhat distracted by the very ugly, half naked, chain-smoking ladies of ill repute that served us.
Even the shabbiest place has beer though, so a steady supply of carbohydrates is guaranteed. 3-in-1 coffee or tea is something you might think of taking along to have a brew before/during early-morning birding.
A word on Mang Den:
Here is what I wrote about Mang Den 2 years ago:
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 modelled 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:
There certainly has been more construction since our last visit, but nowhere on the scale than the investors had hoped and we had feared. Whilst the plan still seems to turn Mang Den into a Hill Station such as Da Lat, realities obviously have taken over as I guess potential buyers are staying away. The villas that we saw also look like the forest might claim them back in 5 years, so bad is the quality of construction.
We had pretty mixed weather with a bit of rain and a couple of thunderstorms. However, it never really lasted enough to interfere with the birding. Sun screen is suggested as it is easy to get burnt, even on overcast days. Temperatures were pretty high throughout and we were all pretty glad that both hotels had A/C.
Dangers and annoyances:
Leeches were present at Lo Xo; as usual it was Ha who saw them first. They were also at Mang Den but, as most birding is down on roads, not much of a worry. Leech socks might come in handy if going on small trails and can be bought from the Oriental Bird Club. I had a lot of problems with Gnats at Lo Xo on my last couple of visits. There were a lot less this year, but I still suggest that you bring long-sleeved shirts, trousers, and insect repellent.
Not a danger but maybe a bit of a hurdle: very few people outside the big cities speak English; making everyday transactions a bit of a challenge. However, it is not anything that can't be overcome with patience, hands and feet, and a sense of humour (or a Vietnamese wife).
As usual we used "A Field Guide to the Birds of South East Asia" by Craig Robson. There is a newer edition with the more recent splits, lumps, and records but it is only available as hardback as far as I am aware.
Special note of thanks, and disclaimer:
Obviously we are very grateful for the recording from Clide Carter as I think it is pretty much impossible to see the Laughers without it.
A great "thank you" also has to go to Simon Mahood and Dave Edwards as they did all the leg-work for us in identifying the sites around Mang Den. I do know that they are preparing a report on the CELT and, until published, please understand that I cannot give exact site details.
Thanks to our driver, Mr. Tho. It means "longevity" in Vietnamese and he was pretty good (except on our way to the airport where, on more than one occasion, I thought I would buy it right at the end of the trip).
Mr. Minh was great company as usual, and his excellent birding skills were an excellent asset. My favorite kind of birder, he doesn't take himself too seriously
Richard "Ricardo" Craik is always a pleasure to have around. My favourite combination: great birder, wicked humour, and not disinclined to have a brew or three.
My lovely wife Ha counterbalances the unwashed, male, hairy birders that she has to endure on our trips; I would prefer the leeches myself. Well done, honey!
As usual, all mistakes are mine and mine alone, and any feedback is welcome at hannostamm(at)hotmail.com.
7th of May:
We took the morning flight to Da Nang which left with an hour's delay. When we did make it to Da Nang, Minh and Tho were waiting for us and we took off for the two-hour drive to Kham Duc. There was enough time to stop at the Tien Tinh 2 restaurant just outside Da Nang for the excellent Beef Soup they have there. We decided to check in later and went straight for Lo Xo, site for the Black-crowned Barwings. It started raining just before we got to the site but it was light enough for us to look for a few birds anyway. The site had all the usual stuff: an abundance of Ashy Drongos and Long-tailed Shrikes as well as heaps of Red-whiskered Bulbuls. At the nearby river we saw Blue-whistling Thrush and Plumbeous Water Redstart. 5 or 6 White-crested Laughingthrushes were nice but the stars were of course the three Black-crowned Barwings that performed very nicely for us. Not much else about and, as the rain got heavier, we headed back to Kham Duc for a very good dinner at the Sau Binh Restaurant (try the Tuna or Pork in clay pot). We caught up with Richard and Minh for a little bit before hitting the sack.
Obviously not much choice for "Bird of the Day", but the Barwings are always a delight to watch and we all chose that one.
8th of May:
We had arranged for a take-away breakfast and lunch from the hotel and at 05:00 we were back on the road for the 40-minute drive to Lo Xo and the border road. Instead of slogging up the first couple of birdless kilometres as we had done in the past, we drove up to KM 2.5 where we had breakfast. This turned out to be quite a good spot as pretty much the first birds we saw were White-winged Magpies. These are just great birds and not the easiest critters to get to grips with. Also seen here where a few Blue-winged Minlas and we did get some of the more common birds out of the way: Collared Owlet was heard, as was Hill Prinia. Both Red-whiskered and Yellow-vented Bulbuls were all over the place, with a couple of Asian Pied and Vinous-breasted Starlings. We also heard Crested Argus calling a couple of times but were not kidding ourselves into thinking we would have a chance to see it. From there the idea was to walk up to about KM 7.00, another spot for the Barwing. It was very birdy at first but it got very hot very quickly and the Cicadas started their awful racket by 08:00 after which it become pretty quiet. However, every so often there would be quite a few birds, starting with Jerdon's Baza and Rufous-bellied Eagle. The latter is a really nice bird and was a new one on our Vietnam list for both Ha and myself.
Richard would do his Collared Owlet impression every so often, and this produced some of the smaller stuff on occasion. The first time he tried this, we had Mrs. Gould's Sunbird as well as Black-throated Sunbird, they were joined by a couple of Black-chinned Yuhinas. The Golden Babblers were everywhere and needed no Owl call to bring them in. Still hard to see most of the time. This is actually also true for the Silver-eared Mesias that we picked up here as well.
Another of these small flocks added Yellow-cheeked and Grey-crowned Tit, gave us good views of a Red-tailed Minlas, as well of another local specialty, Yellow-billed Nuthatch. This is also a bird that can be tricky, though we would get tired of it soon enough. But more on that later.
We continued to the pass, adding two more raptors: Changeable and Mountain Hawk Eagle. Right at the pass we saw another Black-crowned Barwing. We decided to head back down at this point as the border area begins there and the Vietnamese are pretty paranoid about foreigners in areas like that.
We descended a little bit, seeing another really nice and often elusive bird, Indochinese Green Magpie on the way and had lunch. This consisted of "Lo Xo Club Sandwich" and, with Richard's permission, the recipe can be revealed for the first time: Get one of those amazingly good Vietnamese "Baguette" breads and cut in the middle. Take one piece of "Laughing Cow" cheese (it tastes more like plastic, but who cares) and spread evenly on the bread. Now cut one hard-boiled egg into thick slices and place on top of the cheese. Finally, remove one piece of "Xuc Xich Dinh Duong" sausage (which incidentally does not taste like sausage, but then Brits are used to that) and also place on sandwich. Sprinkle everything liberally with pepper, salt, and MSG, close sandwich and enjoy! Believe me, after a few hours of birding, this tastes a lot better than it sounds.
Suitably nourished, we continued on but it was sooo hot and soooooo quiet that the rain that started around 14:00 came as a relief. We took cover in a small hut whilst we waited for the car and Ha promptly spotted two leeches. We headed back to the Pond trail, leaving Ha with the car (she was still shaken from seeing the leeches) and headed up. We saw the glimpse of the shadow of a Red-tailed Laughingthrush, but that was it. As the rain started in earnest, we headed back to Kham Duc.
We tried the Sau Binh 2 restaurant that night. It is a little out of town, too far to walk actually, and slightly more expensive than the original Sau Binh. However, they have a wider choice of beer, it is a little nicer to sit in, a Plaintive Cuckoo was calling nearby, and the food was very good. The service was spotty though. Apart from us, there was only one other table (the restaurant is huge) and there were lots and lots of staff, but they were too busy chatting and watching TV. As we left, however, about 10 waitresses rushed the table to clear it. Why? TIV (This Is Vietnam), I guess.
Views of the Red-tailed Laughingthrush were way too brief to write it down, so Richard settled for the White-winged Magpie as "Bird of the Day", Ha took the other Magpie, Indochinese Green, and I went for the Rufous-bellied Eagle as it was a first in Vietnam for me.
9th of May:
We wanted to give the Red-tailed Laughers another try and headed back to the Pond Trail before leaving for Mang Den. We even managed to convince Ha to come up with us, assuring here that there wouldn't be any leeches (good thing for my marriage, and health, that there were indeed none). It was very windy that morning, but we did manage to call the Laughers in close enough that it seemed we could touch them, but absolutely no joy. We eventually gave up and headed off, having a surprisingly good noodle soup on the way. Surprisingly good I say because the place was more of a shack than a restaurant and the obvious lack of hygiene was not exactly confidence-inspiring.
The total driving time from Lo Xo to Mang Den, via Kom Tum, was just over 4 hours. Mostly on good roads though we had a couple of hairy moments once on the winding and pretty narrow mountain road. The road incidentally passes the only known place for Golden-winged Laughingthrush but access is absolutely not possible due to the military presence there. Anyway, we arrived in Mang Den to check into the wonderful Hoa Sim Hotel. There, we were greeted by surly staff, dirty rooms, no water, and no electricity. This gave us more than enough incentive to dump our gear and go birding.
We headed to the first site indicated by Mr. Mahood and literally within 10 minutes we had good views of our first Chestnut-eared Laughingthrush!!!!!! This was way too easy, but none of us were complaining. This is a bird that not many foreigners have seen, we were probably among the first ten people to ever see it. Well, not taking into account the local trappers and hunters that is. Apart from being a real rarity, it is also one hell of a stunning bird. The only let-down was that we had no Champagne to celebrate. Heck, Beer Saigon would have done....
Ha also had quite a shock here when a very large serpent passed within centimetres of her feet. No idea what species, but whatever species it was, it was just a little too close for comfort.
To put the icing on the cake, we saw at least 4 more of this excellent, fantastic, outstanding, tip-top, first rate, splendid, capital, superb bird in the next two hours. Talk about exceeding even our wildest expectations!
Oh yes, there were other birds, at least according to my list. Actually, the place is also crawling with Black-hooded Laughingthrushes and Yellow-billed Nuthatches. At the end of our trip we came to the conclusion that Mang Den must be the easiest place in Vietnam to see these two species; they were everywhere.
There were probably other birds there as well but we all felt that celebrations were in order. This mood disappeared very quickly when we got to the hotel though: still no power nor water. We went for dinner to the "Rose Restaurant" our smelly selves. On previous visits the food had been pretty good, but the staff must have changed and "Miss Mang Den 2010" was obviously way too beautiful to serve us (her opinion, not ours) and food proved to be pretty hard to get. Ha and Richard finally settled for instant noodles whilst I went on an enforced diet. Back to the hotel but now they really started to jerk us around. Whilst power was back, only Richard had water. I was in desperate need of a shower and Ha and I decided to move out; the others were rather keen to follow suit.
We ended up at the Hung Yen 3 Hotel, the very same resort we had stayed at two years earlier. We did not like it so much back then, but it looked like paradise now. The vampires had gone (read the old trip report: Vampires in Mang Den), the rooms were large and clean, and most importantly, they had running hot and cold water. Oh, there were also no ducks in the room next to us. If you do come here, ask for building "C" as it is the nicest.
A quick shower and no wasting time on deciding what "Bird of the Day" was for all of us: Chestnut-eared Laughingthrush, an absolute no-brainer.
10th of May:
We headed out at 05:30, hearing a Large-tailed Nightjar calling just behind the hotel, and left for the same place we had been the previous afternoon. Whilst getting some coffee in, we heard a Eurasian Cuckoo calling, the resident pair of Southern Jungle Crows were very evident, and I managed to track down a very shy Bay Woodpecker. There was also a Short-tailed Scimitar-babbler calling close by, but it proved to be impossible to get views. Done with the coffee we started birding in earnest and within a couple of minutes again saw both Chestnut-eared and Black-hooded Laughingthrushes.
We then proceeded down the right-hand track which at first had quite a few feeding flocks. Literally every flock had a few Yellow-billed Nuthatches, Yellow-cheeked and Grey-capped Tits, as well as sunbirds. The latter were mostly Mrs. Gould's though we did a single Black-throated Sunbird. Both Golden-throated Barbets and Grey-chinned Minivets where pretty common and we added Crested Serpent-eagle and Oriental Honey-buzzard to our raptor trip list. A stand of very tall trees was busy with Maroon Orioles and another good bird seen here was Stripe-breasted Woodpecker.
The trail was quite open and started becoming hot. We therefore decided to go back and take the trail to the left that was in much denser forest and generally a lot wetter. Richard tried his Owlet call again and very quickly we had another of the target species, Rufous-faced Warbler. Yet another CELT also came in on the call, this was at least bird number 5 since the previous day. What was very interesting is that this bird was in somewhat different habitat from the other birds, it also showed virtually no rufous on the cheeks; they were mostly cream. No idea if this has anything to do with the sex or age of the bird. This particular trail also produced the only 2 leeches we saw in Mang Den. No prize for guessing who spotted them!
By now it was close to lunch and we headed back to town to get some food. We went to the Tam Nhu restaurant in the middle of town. The food was very good, but we also suddenly understood where the "Vampires" from 2 years earlier had moved: to this particular restaurant. They looked scary at night then, but they were even scarier during they day. Our waitress was particularly charming in her nightgown and with a cigarette dangling from her lips whilst she was serving us the food. The restaurant is part of a guesthouse and Richard had initially planned to inspect the rooms for future visitors; he dropped that idea in a hurry after seeing the "ladies" that served us. One can only suspect that there would be knocks on the room door at 02:00 in the morning.
After a little Siesta, and once it had cooled down a little, we went back to the road we had taken in the morning but continued on a little further. Simon Mahood and Dave Edwards had given us directions to a trail there, but when we saw a red marker we opted out; these are used by clearance crews when their metal detectors pick up something suspicious. Whilst keen birders, none of us fancied to get a foot blown, not even for a rarity (Gold-winged Laughingthrush mind you...).
We thus walked along the road once some very black, ominous clouds had passed. Much of the same birds, including yet more Black-hooded Laughingthrushes as well as one more CELT right next to the road. We did hear Brown Hornbill but they did an excellent job in hiding from us. A Hodgon's Hawk Cuckoo made sure that we saw it by calling very loudly, I thought that was rather nice of him. We also saw one of Ha's favourite birds (she has many), a Red-headed Trogon. I love Trogons, especially for two very uncanny habits they have: even though brightly coloured they are an absolute %#!&+@ to see and, if you should manage to spot one, the inevitably fly off the moment you get your bins/scope/camera on them. Just as we were about to pack up for the day, we came across yet another prize bird, a single Grey-headed Parrotbill. They have been split from Black-crowned in Da Lat and as such were another lifer for at least Ha and myself.
A great end to a great day and, for want of choice, we went back to the "Rose Restaurant". The waitress was outright friendly today and we got good food. Heck, even the beer was cold. Maybe she had also seen Chestnut-eared Laugher.
"Birds of the Day" were more varied, with Ha going for the Grey-headed Parrotbill, Richard taking the CELT once more, and me settling for the Rufous-faced Warbler.
11th of May:
Our last day and we headed back to exactly the same spot as the previous two days. We were still drinking coffee and rubbing sleep out of our eyes when Ha shouted "Pigeons". I was inclined to dismiss them as Mountain Imperial but we all took a good look at them anyway. What do you know, they were two Pale-capped Pigeons! Lifers for all of us, Ha and I had miserably dipped on them just a couple of months earlier in Thmatboey. A morning cannot possibly start better than that. This was even more so the case as the CELTs completely refused to play today; with nary a peep out of them.
On the whole it was much quieter than previously, maybe because of that storm front that had pushed through earlier. We did see a Pallas' Squirrel and a stunning white-morph Asian Paradise Flycatcher. A Drongo Cuckoo for once gave us fantastic views, I actually do not think that I have ever seen one sitting out in the open like this one did. Richard "The Owlet" Craik once again brought in a number of mixed flocks. If it wasn't for the CELT's, Mang Den would have no problem calling itself the Yellow-billed Nuthatch and Black-hooded Laughingthrush Capital of the World as these were really the two species that were everywhere. Sure, Ashy Drongos, Mountain Fulvettas, Black-chinned and Yellow-bellied Yuhinas were also common but, whilst nice birds in their own right, they are playing way out of their league in Mang Den.
After a final lunch at the "Rose" we headed off for Plei Ku to catch our plane back. Uneventful drive except that Mr. Tho obviously finally had had enough of us; he took some very unnecessary risks the last few Kilometres and a couple of times we thought we would meet our maker right there and then (for once I was actually looking forward to flying). We did make it in one piece though, only to find that our flight was once again delayed. No surprise there, it being a Vietnam Airways flight, and we settled in, drank beer, and watched a totally inane comic that looped and was about a farting Tyrannosaurus rex. Pretty bizarre really.
That wrapped up a trip that exceeded all our expectations. I think we pretty much cleared up everything we could conceivably expect to see. I know that Richard has been back since and saw 8 (!) Pale-capped Pigeons; not sure how he fared on the CELTs.
List of Birds: