Da Lat and Yok Don April 2009
An effort to give a boost to our Vietnam list
During our last birding trip with our Friend Richard we had discussed, somewhat tentatively, going to Yok Don. This National Park in Dak Lak Province and close to the Cambodian border is unique in that it holds many species difficult or impossible to see elsewhere in Vietnam.
As usual, we dragged our feet for a while and then everything came together very quickly. Richard, who runs the well-known Vietnam Birding tour company, was tasked with sorting out the logistics; Florian, Da Lat based fellow birder, was taken on board, and we were good to go.
The idea was for Richard to fly to Buon Ma Thuot (BMT), where Florian, my wife Ha, and I would pick him up after having spent a couple of days in Da Lat. Target birds were some of the endemics in Da Lat and the specialty birds in Yok Don, especially the numerous woodpeckers present there.
Richard had arranged a package in Yok Don that included 3 nights accommodation, all meals, motorbikes to get around on, a guide, the necessary permits (needed to camp one night in the park as it is close to the border) and entrance fees. This package came to USD 300.00 per person, a fair prize in my opinion.
Ha and I stayed in the Novotel in Da Lat. The room was USD 81.00 a night but we did get up-graded to a Suite, so that was an OK prize, too.
The car from Da Lat to Yok Don and back was VND 3,500,000; about USD 200.00.
Transportation and accommodation:
As mentioned above we used a car to get to Yok Don whilst Richard flew from HCMC to Buon Ma Thuot. In and around the park we used rented motorbikes. Very convenient as the roads inside the park are very good and it allowed us to cover a lot of ground in little time. In all honesty it was also way too bloody hot to be walking around.
At Yok Don, we had two nights in fairly clean and comfortable rooms at the Park Headquarter. Mosquito nets were provided, though not needed, and the rooms had air conditioning, very much needed.
We camped for one night and, unlike the trip Ha and I took to Quy Nhon last year, the tents were large and in good shape. Our guide Mr. Gioi brought blankets and pillows along; the only thing I would take, should I go back there, would be camping mats; the ground was pretty hard. Ha and I were also glad to have brought a couple of silk sleeping bags along, it got a bit cool in the early hours.
Temperatures in Da Lat were almost perfect, as it lies at 1,600 meters it never got too hot and, at the height of summer, never too cool either (though many Vietnamese were dressed for skiing, but then that is normal for this part of the world when temperatures fall below 25°Centigrade). It was mostly dry here, with emphasis on "mostly": Ha and I got caught out in an amazing thunderstorm on Mount Lang Biang. I have not been that wet very often in my life; luckily neither raincoat nor umbrella got wet as we had conveniently left them in the hotel roomL.
Yok Don was a whole different ball game, or to quote Adrian Cronauer in "Good Morning Vietnam": "It's hot! Damn hot! Real hot! Hottest thing is my shorts. I could cook things in it." I didn't try cooking anything in my shorts, but temperatures reached the high 40's, and I am talking Centigrade here. It was OK as long as we were on the bikes, but stopping and walking even a couple of steps wasn't much fun. We did have about three-and-a-half drops of rain the first day, but that was it.
Food and Drink:
In Da Lat we had most of our meals at the Long Hoa Restaurant near the cinema. Also known as "Restaurant de la Famille" due to its francophone owner, food and service were outstanding here. Prices are decent with VND 25,000 for a large Tiger and main courses in the VND 40,000 - VND 60,000 range. We also had a couple of meals at the "Cafe de la Poste" between the Novotel and Sofitel. Food was good, if on the pricey side (Steak USD 28.00, salad USD 4.00, small Tiger beer USD 2.50) but the service needs improvement. They do have what must be the best salads in town though.
In Yok Don we had a couple of dinners at the Headquarter. These were good and there were plenty of cold beers available. Due to the aforementioned good roads we even had cool beer when camping, as well as excellent grilled chicken, grilled fish, and sticky rice in Bamboo, a traditional dish served by the local "Ede" people to welcome guests.
After having done a number of trips together, we also had our picnic lunches down together to a tee, with plenty of coffee, biscuits, peanut butter (crunchy), dried squid and more. Mr. Gioi also had plenty of canned meats, but the content looked too much like cat food for most of us. Only Florian had obviously been in Da Lat to long, pronouncing the
You certainly need to take lots of water, even riding a bike most of the time. I'd say 3 liters of liquid per day would be the absolute minimum.
Dangers and annoyances:
There are no leeches in Da Lat during the dry season, at least that is what Florian and I told Ha. Obviously, Ha promptly went on to find 2 of the critters in Ta Nung Valley, one on her leg. I am convinced that she would find leeches in the Gobi.
There really were no leeches in Yok Don though; the forest is too open for that. There were plenty of mozzies around dusk when we camped; bizarrely, they seemed to disappear once it got dark.
Plenty of Red Ants anywhere near the rivers in Yok Don. Not dangerous, but they do pack one hell of a bite, as we all found out.
The guide of choice still has to be "A Field Guide to the Birds of South-East Asia" by Craig Robson. A revised edition has just come out, taking into account all the latest splits and lumps (but still with the same nasty plates of, e.g. Corvids). However, it is only available as a hard cover at the moment, which is pretty heavy to be lugging in the field.
For mammals the recently published "A Field Guide to the Mammals of South East Asia" by Charles M. Francis provides the best coverage.
Florian Klingel has prepared an excellent site guide, including the best map I have seen so far, for Da Lat, in particular Tuyen Lam Lake; finding the right trails here can be tricky. With his express permission, you will find the description and map here: notes on birding Tuyen Lam.
Mr. Gioi, our guide at Yok Don. He looked after us extremely well, keeping us fed, sheltered and drunk.
Mr. Ma Tam, who provided for us at the camp site and also got us a case of beer.
Mr. Hung, Manager for Ecotourism at Yok Don National Park. Not only did he do the necessary paper work for us, he also sent us Ha's camera bag, which she had forgotten at the park, after the trip.
All the staff at the various hotels, guesthouses, and restaurants.
Richard "Ricardo" Craik, both for organizing the Yok Don part of the venture and for the company on yet another memorable trip. Fact is also that without his experience we would have missed many birds.
Florian Klingel, the "newbie" in our small group. Great stuff and thanks a lot for helping us to find birds in Da Lat. Certainly not the last trip I hope, there is a vulture restaurant that needs visiting.
And then there is my lovely wife "Leech detector" Ha. These days a much better birder than I am, and certainly with better eyes (for that, I will forgive you for having forgotten the tea).
Errors, opinions, and delusions are all mine and only mine. Need information or want to invite me for a beer? Drop me a line: [email protected]
2nd of April:
As usual, we were traveling light and it only took as 30-odd minutes to load 2 suitcases, 4 back-packs, assorted other bags, tripod bag, case of beer and 2 sandwiches into the car and take off for the 4-hour drive to Da Lat. Not many birds along the way, but a rapidly deteriorating road and a somewhat uneasy feeling passing the spot where a bus with Russian tourists had gone over the edge a couple of weeks earlier.
We did not fall off and reached Da Lat around lunch time. Quick check-in, a couple of steaks and we headed for Ta Nung Valley. This site, only 10 minutes away from the town, is well-known amongst birders for one of the main draws of Da Lat, Grey-crowned Crocias.
There is now a new gate on the road leading to the valley, and there was also a very angry security guard at the gate. He absolutely refused to let us in, telling us (screaming, rather) to bugger off and that we were stupid and access was restricted. I do not know what brought on this tirade, as access had never been a problem here before (I also checked with Florian later, who was more than a little surprised at the reaction of the guard as he had been to the place the same morning without any hassle). At the same time the guard's wife told her husband to let us enter, so we decided to ignore the guard and continue; I suspect the chap had looked somewhat to deeply into a rice-wine bottle earlier. (Update: massive construction of a 200-room resort has started in Ta Nung; the site is a write-off).
Still shaking from the encounter (I was close to decking the guy), we headed on down into the valley. The very first birds we saw were Black Bulbuls, they are actually everywhere. I still remember seeing my first Black Bulbuls in Tam Dao years back, when I was still young and handsome, and how excited I was about them. In Ta Nung, they are just a pain in the %*$@: they are all over the place and Ha and I quickly got tired of getting our bins on a bird, only to take them down with increasingly exasperated sighs of "only a Black Bulbul".
The next birds we came across were in a different league, a flock of White-cheeked Laughingthrushes. Really nice birds those and, as Laughingthrushes go, real easy to see. Ha was sure she also spotted something else in or near that flock, with a yellow bill, but we couldn't find it again.
We kept on going until the little dam at the bottom of the valley and spent a little time there. It wasn't too busy, I guess it was just too hot, but we did tick off the usual suspects: Streaked Spiderhunter, Mountain Imperial Pigeon, Red-whiskered Bulbuls (there was a flock with at least 30 of these rather noisy birds), Black-crested Bulbul, Gould's Sunbirds and a single White-throated Fantail. Alas, no sightings of the Crocias though we heard at least a couple calling. Florian had told us that they had become quite difficult in the previous days, in all likelihood because breeding had commenced.
As we had arranged for the Taxi to come back to pick us up, we slowly headed back up the hill. Still not much happening, but we did see the birds with the yellow bills again. Better views this time enabled us to nail them as Grey-headed Parrotbills (split into Black-crowned Parrotbill by some), lifers for both of us. One of the larger Parrotbills in Vietnam, this sighting alone made the small afternoon's excursion well worthwhile. Add to that the fact that the rather unfriendly guard had disappeared by the time we were back at the gate and it was not a bad afternoon at all, rounded off by a Rufous-capped Babbler calling at our feet whilst we were waiting for the car.
That evening, we met Florian at the Long Hoa restaurant for a good meal and a few cold ones. Florian had all his in-laws visiting and we had the feeling that he jumped at the chance to get out for a little bitJ.
"Bird-of-the-Day" was an obvious choice for both Ha and me: Grey-headed Parrotbill.
3rd of April:
We figured that there was no need to get up too early and headed for breakfast first. This proved to be easier said then done; though breakfast was advertised as being available from 06:00, staff just slowly started rolling in when we got there. Thus, after some cold coffee, tea, and "Pho" (Vietnamese noodle soup, really good when it is hot) we headed for Tuyen Lam a little later than expected.
Armed with Florian's excellent map, the Taxi driver still managed to get lost. If you are birding in Vietnam, here are a couple of points to remember:
1. Drivers in Vietnam will never, ever, under any circumstances, no way, impossible, ever admit that they do not know an address or location.
2. Drivers in Vietnam will never, ever, under any circumstances, no way, impossible, ever ask for directions.
3. Nobody knows how to read a map (except my loving and gentle wife [guess who made me put that comment]) .
However, once you have these rather minor issues sorted out, most drivers are very helpful and friendly. You might not end up where you wanted to go, but you will see places that were not even on your itinerary.
Amazingly enough, we made it to the Da Tien Resort, which might have something to do with the fact that there is actually only one road that goes there. It was a bit unsettling to see all these "Eco-resorts" along the road, either in progress or planned. Our driver told us, with not a little pride, that the lake shores would be developed once Da Lat attains city status later this year. This, according to him, would make the area much nicer for Vietnamese tourists. Troubling indeed if one knows what "eco" means in Vietnam: chop down all natural vegetation, replace with concrete animals, real animals in cages, the odd souvenir shop or five, a Karaoke, and a restaurant that serves protected animals and birds. One can only hope that the current financial crisis will put many projects on ice.....
Unlike the previous day, the guard at the Da Tien greeted us and welcomed us to go birding. The resort looked quite OK, though the signs everywhere asking for donations so the resort can buy captive animals and birds disturbed me a little; in my opinion actions like this do more good than harm, actually encouraging trapping.
Back to birding: the lake was full of trilling Little Grebes and quite a number of Chinese Pond-herons. The resort gardens had plenty of White-cheeked Laughingthrushes, Spotted Doves, Black-collared Starlings, Slender-billed Orioles and Ashy Drongos. We took very hard looks at a small group of Chestnut-vented Nuthatches but just could not string them into their yellow-billed cousins.
We followed the trail mentioned in Florian's notes, slowly walking towards the next resort along the lake. As in Ta Nung the previous day, it was very quiet, though an Indochinese Cuckoo-shrike was singing its heart out. The somewhat less melodious calls of Chinese Francolins came from all around though we failed miserably to see one, the very common Green-backed Tits were a lot easier. Not much else that morning apart from a very sorry-looking domestic Elephant and a Eurasian Jay. I have seen this particular subspecies also being called "White-faced Jay", which aptly describes the looks of this bird.
It was again bloody hot by now and we headed back to Da Lat and the Long Hoa Restaurant for some food (Ha) and beer (Hanno).
Suitably refreshed, we headed off for Mount Lang Biang. They have had a good little racket going on here for years: only the official Lang Biang Jeeps are allowed to cart you up the mountain, at VND 180,000 for the round trip. Of course one could walk to the beginning of the trail, but it is quite a slog with few birds.
Thus, we hopped into the jeep, drove to the trail head and started walking, once the driver had given Ha his mobile phone number; a little transaction that would come in extremely handy just a short time later.
As usual, there were Golden-throated Barbets calling everywhere, almost drowning out a couple of Collared Owlets. Straight out of the car, we saw two very nice Large Niltavas as well as a Grey Bushchat. Apart from that, it was pretty much same-same: Black Bulbuls (I was beginning to seriously dislike these birds), Green-backed Tits, Ashy Drongos, and a couple of Flavescent Bulbuls. By this time, we had almost left the pines and reached the broadleaved forest when the first drops of rain hit us. Ever the optimist I told Ha that this was bound to stop when the skies opened and it came down in buckets, very LARGE buckets. We had brought rain jackets, umbrellas, and waterproof backpacks; all these items were well protected in our room back at the Novotel.
This is where the jeep-driver's mobile phone number came into play with Ha dispatching an urgent SOS call. The driver promised to come straight away but we still had to walk a few hundred meters back to the road; by the time we reached it we were more than just a little wet. It hammered on the Jeep all the way down, good thing that the driver knew the road well enough to not actually having to see it; the wipers were no match for the torrents. Obviously, the rain stopped as soon as we reached the main gate and we later found out that that afternoon it had only rained on Mount Lang Bian.
We called it a day and went for early dinner and beers at the, you guessed it, Long Hoa. Not much of a choice but once again Ha picked the Large Niltava as "Bird-of-the-Day"; I took the Slender-billed Oriole.
4th of April:
Florian had promised to pick us up at 05:00, and we had asked the hotel for a couple of breakfast boxes. Somehow, that order got lost (never mind that we reconfirmed it twice the evening before) and much running and shouting ensued. Quite amusing to watch really and we did add House Swift and Eurasian Tree Sparrow whilst we waited (Yes I know: not the most exciting birds but they still counted towards our trip list). Thus, it was with a slight delay that we set off for the Nui Ba National Park.
With us was Mr. Son, a very pleasant young ranger who needed to accompany us as the Park is not really open to foreign visitors (OK to enter if you are a Vietnamese logger/trapper/orchid picker though). After an hour's drive over at times rough roads we got to the dirt road we would be walking that morning.
It was very pleasant at that time of the day and the birds seemed to think so, too. Almost immediately we heard Collared Laughingthrushes and we decided to try and get closer. Actually, Ha stayed behind as she did not quite trust our reassurances that there would be no leeches. O ye of little faith!
She did not miss anything though as the Laughers refused to play and moved away from us. Whilst Florian and Son back-tracked, I decided to take a short-cut, picking up a fight with some very dense, very thorny undergrowth. Obviously, the thorns won and it was a rather scratched and bleeding me that rejoined the others 15 minutes later.
The mix of broad-leafed and coniferous forest seemed to be much liked by warblers and we quickly got Blyth's Leaf, Ashy-throated, Chestnut-crowned, and Yellow-browed Warblers out of the way. A Grey-bellied Tesia was singing right next to the road but we just did not manage to get a glimpse of it, much to Ha's disappointment; like me she adores these little birds that always give the impression of being on a coffee-high what with all the zipping about.
The Blue-winged Minlas were much easier to see though they can throw off the unwary birder: the sub-species here has black wings without a trace of blue (go ahead, split it).
There were quite a few Collared Laughingthrushes calling and Florian gave it another try with the tape. Sure enough, this time they were more accommodating and we all managed to get good views of Collared Laughingthrushes. That was one of the target birds out of the way; it wouldn't be long before we saw the next one. We heard the loud whistles first, but some careful scanning produced the first of what would eventually be 3 Vietnamese Cutias. This was shaping up to be a good morning that turned into a perfect one when we saw our last target bird here, a male Red Crossbill. I am actually not sure about the status of the latter; I have seen it split into Vietnamese Crossbill, but I have also seen articles stating that there are no grounds for splitting that bird, even if it is larger than its European cousin.
All these birds got our appetites going. Florian had some delicious home-made bacon-bread-rolls, as well as some sticky rice (yes, his in-laws from Ha Noi made that as the only good sticky rice comes from the North, at least according to the North Vietnamese). Florian and I graciously let Son and Ha have the sticky rice whilst we had the rolls and the contents of the breakfast boxes. Truth be told, I am not a great fan of sticky rice personally.
After that brunch, we headed back and added White-browed and Chestnut-fronted Shrike-babbler, Black-headed Sibia, Fire-breasted Flowerpecker, Yellow-cheeked Tit, a male Grey-chinned Minivet and a few more Vietnamese Greenfinches to our list.
It was fairly late in the afternoon by the time we got back, stopping at the Ranger station for a cup of green tea en route, and Ha and I headed straight for the Long Ho Restaurant again. After lunch we spent a couple of hours in vain looking for "Three-in-one-tea", I would be drinking coffee for the rest of the trip. Da Lat was packed that weekend because of the "King Hung Holiday" on the 5th, making it a long weekend. In recent years the Vietnamese have certainly started to enjoy the gains of a booming economy and there is a lot more travel. It was actually a rather nice atmosphere and it was great that the central roads had been closed to all traffic; it is rare indeed that one can walk in Vietnam without the constant danger of getting clobbered by a motorbike.
Dinner and beers followed, as well as deciding the "Birds-of-the-Day". Difficult choice actually with so many good contenders, but Ha settled for the Red Crossbill; a lifer for her, whilst Florian and I rewarded the very good views that the Collared Laughingthrushes gave us.
5th of April:
Ha and I were going to go back to Ta Nung and try for the Crocias again before leaving for Yok Don at noon. Florian managed to get away once more from the family and picked us up at the hotel.
When we got there, we managed to wake up the security guard's wife but he fortunately seemed to be a heavy sleeper. Passing the gate, we headed for the huge tree to the left of the trail, ticking off a female White-tailed Robin and a very nice male Blue-and-white Flycatcher. A movement high up in a tree caught our collective eyes and it turned out to be an Indochinese Green Magpie giving exceptionally good views for a bird that is usually much harder to see and even then only gives brief glimpses at best. We spent a few minutes admiring the bird before realizing that there were at least two of them. A shame really that the Corvid pages in Craig Robson's Birds of South-East Asia are so bad, this bird is impossible to identify using that guide.
Moving on to a big tree, we paused for coffee and watched out for birds. It was Florian who first heard a couple of birds calling and a thorough search produced what we came to see, a Grey-crowned Crocia. It was very skulking but we got good views, much to my relief: I had told Ha that we would not leave Da Lat until she had seen the bird; a lifer for her.
Not much else new here, and we had to beat a very hasty retreat when Ha spotted a leech on my boot, shortly followed by another leech on her. These were the only 2 leeches we would see throughout the trip, but obviously Ha was very reluctant to go anywhere overgrown and Florian and I certainly lost all credibility as we had promised her that it was much too dry for leeches.
It was therefore only Florian and I that walked along the forest trail at the end of the valley for a couple of hundred meters, spotting Red-headed Trogon, and Asian Fairy Bluebird along the way. As we came back out of the forest with Florian in front of me, he spotted a bird that, by his description, must have been a Parrotfinch, but we did not manage to find it again.
Florian tried to tape in the Laughers and they did come within a couple of meters but only Ha managed to get the briefest of glimpses of Orange-breasted Laughingthrushes.
It was getting pretty hot by now and we headed back to Da Lat for an early lunch, adding Little Pied Flycatcher and Black-throated Sunbird on the way. Lunch for Ha and myself was at the "Cafe de la Poste"; whilst I was not so happy with the steak I had had a couple of days earlier, the salads we had for lunch were fantastic.
Florian came back at 12:00 and a couple of minutes later we were on the road to BMT, five hours away. Very nice scenery along the way though it was disheartening to see the in-roads that coffee is making everywhere. We also drove into one of the heaviest storms that I have seen in a long time, with utility poles toppled and a market along the way pretty much flattened. Florian and I were lucky: the beers we had had necessitated a pit stop and we managed to pick the one minute that it did not hammer down to make room for more beer.
The weather got better as we closed in on BMT airport and Richard arrived pretty much on time. Heathrow this place is not, and he had no problem homing in on us and the cold Tiger waiting for him.
From here it was another hour to get us to the Park HQ where we met Mr. Gioi, our guide for the coming days, and Mr. Hung, who had made the arrangements. We dumped our stuff in the comfortable enough rooms and headed for an excellent dinner and a game of guessing what goodies we would see the next day.
"Bird-of-the-Day" was the Indochinese Green Magpie for Florian, Ha and I took the Grey-crowned Crocias.
6th of April:
We did not have to get up too early as departure was only planned for 06:00. However, we were all awake well before then as a large flock of Red-breasted Parakeets had decided to settle in some trees right next to Richard's window; obviously discussing what they were going to do that day. The handful of Streak-eared Bulbuls had nothing on the racket those parrots made; amazing what horrendous noises such pretty birds can make.
We headed for a quick breakfast of instant noodles before taking the boat to cross over to the park proper, seeing Greater Racket-tailed and Spangled Drongos on the way.
I think we were all glad that the park staff had taken the motorbikes we would be using that day across the river already; the authorities had opened the sluice gates 20 kilometers upstream and the river was rushing along. We all thought it prudent to put on life vests, though mine would have done no good at all as it was obviously for a child (or a Vietnamese) and I could hardly move in it, never mind closing the buckles. There is actually a bridge being built but Richard and Florian, who had been here before, saw no progress since their previous visits. We managed the crossing without any mishaps, flushing a Common Sandpiper, and soon were on our steeds and off along an excellent dirt road.
We had hardly gotten underway when we stopped for the first bird, a nice male Purple Sunbird, one of our target birds. Just a little further, Richard announced White-rumped Falcon. Florian thought that Richards was joking, assuming they would be much harder to find, and pretty much ignored the birds. Good thing that they would turn out to be quite common in the park, with numerous sightings over the next few days.
Chinese Francolins were calling incessantly everywhere and there was a generally a lot of activity. We therefore quickly established a pattern: stop at a likely place, see lots of birds and, when we got too hot, get back onto our bikes for a little while to cool down.
The very first stop produced a good number of birds, though the start was rather slow with an Oriental Magpie Robin. Then a Common Koel opened up and a little searching nailed the bird, a lifer for Florian. There were plenty of Red-breasted Parakeets, but our checking all of them paid off eventually when we first saw a pair of Grey-headed Parakeets and then 4 Blossom-headed Parakeets. We spent the longest time on the latter as the pinkish heads were not that obvious at first. Luckily, they obliged and moved on to a perch with better light so that all of us nailed them. The surrounding trees were crawling with Black-headed Orioles and Indian Rollers, whilst there were plenty of Red Junglefowls heard all around us. The one bird that was as common here as nowhere else I have been to where White-crested Laughingthrushes. Throughout our two days inside the park hardly a minute would go by without us hearing the manic laughter; with plenty of sightings as well.
We also had our breakfast in this place, adding Coppersmith and Lineated Barbets, our first Woodpecker in the shape of Grey-capped Pygmy, lots of Spotted Doves, and a Shikra, with Crested Treeswifts zipping overhead.
Next stop was just before a river crossing. Here, the trees were a bit taller than elsewhere in the park, attracting a few birds we would not see elsewhere starting with Thick-billed Green Pigeon and a single Green Imperial Pigeon as well as two Hill Mynas. If I remember correctly, this was also the only place we saw a Bronzed Drongo. We explored along the river on foot a little, we even managed to convince Ha that there were no leeches there. Unlike Da Lat, there really weren't any leeches; they must have all been eaten by the Red Ants that were everywhere! I am not sure what I prefer: getting sucked dry by leeches or being eaten alive by these bloody ants. One thing is for sure though: unlike leeches, you sure will know when a Red Ant zaps you, those suckers are painful!
Back to the birding: a Dark-necked Tailorbird came in pretty closes, as did a Black Baza circling overhead, surely one of the most beautiful raptors in Vietnam. Both Black-winged and Large Cuckoo-shrikes were around, good for comparison purposes.
We eventually got to the sub-station for lunch. The rangers very kindly invited us, an invitation Mr. Gioi readily accepted. The rest of us could not really face the idea of drinking rice alcohol in 40-degree heat and tucked into our peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwiches. The rangers started getting raucous and took a lot of interest in Ha, and we thought it prudent to move (not because we feared for our safety, even if an AK-47 was on prominent display, we just did not want to get suckered into drinking with them).
I am not going to bother you with details of every stop we made, suffice it to say that we had many stops, it was extremely hot, and we saw a lone Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, added Greater and Common Flameback, Rufous Woodpecker, Black-headed and Yellow-crowned Woodpecker to our 'pecker list, debated at length about an Oriental Honeybuzzard, had Florian miss the 2 Red-billed Blue Magpies that everyone else saw, and learned from Richard that the Chestnut-bellied Nuthatches we saw might soon be Neglected Nuthatches. Apart from the fact that that is a pretty stupid name for a bird, I also got a laugh out of the fact that bird tour guides seem to be very quick at splitting and tend to ignore any lumpsJJJ.
The other noteworthy sighting was that of Mr. Ma Tam, the gentleman that would be looking after camp that night, passing us on a motorbike piled high with tents, blankets, food and beer!!!!! By this time we were all pretty exhausted from the heat and from the sheer effort of trying to pin-point birds and we followed him on in to the camp site.
Florian headed for a bath in the nearby stream, Ha headed for a chat with the Vietnamese, and Richard and I took a little walk. First up were both Silver-backed and Brown-backed Needletails above a little clearing. This was followed by a Golden-crowned Myna and three of my favorite Woodpeckers, Great Slaty. Richard heard them first; a short blast from the tape and they came in right over our heads, landing and displaying in a tree not far from us. When we came back, Ha and Gioi told us that they had seen a flock of Ibises overhead!!!! We never did manage to connect with them again so it is anybodies guess what they were.
Richard and I decided that we were too filthy to go to sleep like that and also headed for the stream for a very refreshing bath. From there, it was on to an excellent dinner expertly prepared by Mr. Ma Tam. The beers were still reasonably cool and it was certainly one of the nicer evenings I have had recently. The "Bird-of-the-Day" for Ha, Richard and myself was Blossom-headed Parakeet, Florian chose the Yellow-footed Green Pigeon.
The tents had been put up for us, and Mr. Gioi had thought of blankets and towels as well. The tents were more than big enough and on the whole the night was quite comfortable, though I would nevertheless take a lilo or camping mat with me were I to come back.
7th of April:
After a very quiet night, with only a Brown Hawk Owl and a Large-tailed Nightjar calling briefly, breakfast was waiting for us in the shape of a bowl of noodle soup and plenty of coffee. As we were sipping the brew, a flock of Oriental Pied Hornbills moved through the canopy and Florian was lucky that the Great Slatys made another appearance after having missed out on them the previous evening. There were also at least 3 Asian Barred Owlets about, a fact widely announced by some ticked-off Sooty-headed Bulbuls. Something heavy crashing through the trees turned out to be Long-tailed Macaques, the only primates we would see.
Until lunch time, we would pretty much follow the previous day's modus operandi: ride bike, stop in likely place, tick off birds. Really one of the most comfortable birding trips I have had.
The first bird of any note was a large raptor that, once it moved closer, turned out to be a Changeable Hawk-eagle. The first new bird for the trip, and indeed for Ha's and my Vietnam list, was good views of a Rufous-bellied Woodpecker. Even better, this was followed only a short while later by (Richard, Florian: continue reading from the next paragraph) a pair of Streak-throated Woodpeckers. Target bird for all of us but I did not manage to get our friends on the male, whilst Ha also failed to get them onto the female.
Welcome back Richard and Florian. Another stop added two more to our trip list, Great Tit and Velvet-fronted Nuthatch. Another great bird was Chestnut-winged Cuckoo. Again, a pretty hard bird for everybody to get on to, luckily another individual would give much better views later. A large stork circling on the thermals above had us all excited. The light was very dodgy and it was pretty much impossible to make out any details. Probably the same bird did us a favor and circled past us again a little later and this time views were good enough to clinch it as a Woolly-necked Stork.
A late second breakfast was had by a waterfall; we shared the place with White-crested Laughingthrushes and lots of Red Ants. Florian tried yet another flavor of tinned meat; it looked atrocious (smelled atrocious, too) and even the Red Ants recoiled in horror. I have to say that I hold Florian in high esteem since the trip, not only as a very able birder, but also as a man that does not have "inedible" in his vocabulary.
Back to the river crossing and Head Quarters for lunch, beer, and a single Little Cormorant posing on a rock in the river. The sluice gates must have been closed, or the reservoir had emptied; the crossing was a little easier to stomach today.
Another good lunch, a couple of beers and about the last thing I wanted to do was to head out into the heat again. But the trip was paid for and I sure wasn't going to be the first to wimp out (though the others would have probably been happy to head for a Siesta, too).
Onto the boat again to head for the "Botanical Garden" on the other side of the river. For once it was me that saw a bird first, and it turned out to be one of the birds we had come to Yok Don in the first place, a pair of Mekong Wagtails. Not only is this a bird that was only described relatively recently (absent from the 2000 Craig Robson edition actually), Yok Don is also the only easily accessible place to see it in Vietnam.
Once on the other side, birding was pretty slow at first, though another Black Baza gave great views as well as a female White-rumped Falcon. We did spook a Barking Deer or Red Muntjac, adding another mammal to our pitiful small list. Here I should mention that the park is very disturbed, with logging in evidence everywhere. It seems to be the usual problem: a handful of very dedicated Rangers face off against park management that uses donations to buy a car for the director, the powers that be are often heavily engaged in the logging and trapping themselves, and the government is all talk and no action. It can be frustrating to go bird-watching in VietnamL.
Rant over, back to birding. We had absolutely stunning views of Red-billed Blue Magpies; now these are birds I can never get enough off, they are just too darn beautiful. We then had another star bird, a male Narcissus Flycatcher. For Richard this was the 3rd one in just a few days; they are obviously not at all that uncommon though the time they spend in Vietnam appears to be rather short. For the rest of us it was yet another great bird. Another boat ride, with an Intermediate Egret, and a shower.
That was pretty much it for the day, though Ha and I managed to grip off Richard and Florian: as we headed for the restaurant for beers, we had three Alexandrine Parakeets fly right over our heads, probably heading for their roost.
Unlike previous days, "Birds-of-the-Day" were a varied lot, with Florian settling on the Narcissus Flycatcher, Richard taking the Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, joining Ha, and me also going for a Woodpecker, albeit the Streak-throated one.
8th of April:
We had agreed to not return to the actual park as we had seen pretty much all we could realistically hope for. Thus, after breakfast, we headed out on the road for the 21 kilometer trip to village inhabited by the Ede people; towards the Cambodian border.
The forest was pretty open and we did not see many birds at first. We did stop a couple of times to walk into the forest, but it was incredibly hot, the hottest day of the trip as a matter of fact, and none of us had the stamina left for major hikes.
"New" birds seen along the road were Vinous-breasted Starling, Chestnut-headed Bee-eater and, at a reservoir where we stopped for coffee, an Osprey. During one of the few stops, Florian discovered Vernal Hanging Parrots, but most birds were more of what we had seen previously.
There were plenty of raptors around, but they were the usual Crested Serpent-eagles, Shikras, and Oriental Honey-buzzards. Shortly after joking how nice it would be to see a nice raptor perched right next to the road, Ha and I saw a Rufous-winged Buzzard doing exactly that (Ha and I were clowning around and had raced ahead). Obviously, Richard and Florian thought we were joking at first, but as we continued to jump up and down and make frantic gestures, they luckily came and checked it out (the really amazing thing was that the Buzzard did not fly off with all our antics). To explain the excitement: whilst we had seen this Buzzard in Cambodia before, it was a new entry on the Vietnam list for all of us. As we were admiring the Buzzard, a Woolly-necked Stork perched right in front of us, an added bonus after the rather distant views we had the previous day.
We stopped at some dry rice paddies just outside the village, change of habitat meant change of birds, starting with Plain-backed Sparrow as we got off our bikes. We had come to look for Bushlark, but the first likely candidates turned out to be Paddyfield Pipits. Keeping a wary eye on the Water buffalos (one had what looked suspiciously like a Swarovski bin-strap hanging from one of its horns), we scoured the fields. We kept on seeing LBJ's perched on distant fence poles, but they would always be gone by the time we got close. It was way too hot and we eventually gave up, heading back to the bikes. It was then that a noisy, brown bird started flying in large circles around us, giving great views and it was indeed an Indochinese Bushlark, the bird we had been looking for.
We needed to get back to the Headquarters as Richard had a plane to catch and the rest of us needed to get back to Da Lat. Ha and I managed to take a wrong turn (I am too embarrassed to admit that I had a GPS with me), but at least we saw a Plaintive Cuckoo that way.
"Bird-of-the-Day" was unanimous: Rufous-winged Buzzard. After lunch, we headed for the airport, passing a few tourists on the way. One of them turned out to be the Chef I had worked with in Can Tho for a couple of years; what a great excuse to stop and have a beer.
Ha and I did return to Ta Nung Valley the next morning for a last shot at the Orange-breasted Laughingthrushes, but it was really windy and we did not even hear them this time round. We did add a Mugimaki Flycatcher to our trip list, before heading back to Phan Thiet.
Another great trip, with 109 species seen in Yok Don and a pretty good 171 species for the whole trip for Ha and myself. We pretty much saw all the Yok Don specialties; White-shouldered Ibis was never very realistic and Cambodia must surely be a better place for that species. But with 11 species of Woodpeckers, 7 species of Flycatchers and 4 species of Laughing-thrushes (for Ha, anyway), who is complaining?
P.S.: Ha and I went to Di Linh a few days later and I finally got the Orange-breasted Laugher out of the way.
List of Birds seen: