or: In Search of Vietnamese Endemics
After a very busy high season, Richard Craik, his wife Lan, my wife Ha, and myself decided that it was enough; a break was called for. Richard had planned to go to Da Lat, and kindly enough asked us if we wanted to come along. What a question, of course we did!!!! The particular attraction of Da Lat is that a) it is cool whilst Saigon and the Delta were already sweltering (or so we thought, more later) and b) that it holds 4 of the 10 Vietnamese endemics: Collared Laughingthrush, Black-hooded Laughingthrush, Grey-headed Crocias, and Vietnamese Greenfinch.
Ha and I flew a day early, as we could not get a flight on Friday. Da Lat is a popular weekend retreat for affluent Vietnamese, and there was a big Golf tournament on that weekend. We stayed in the Novotel Da Lat, paying USD 80.00 net a night. I later found out that we paid more than anyone else:-(. We took a Taxi from the airport, which cost us VND 210,000.00, and hired the taxi driver on the spot for the next three days. He proved to be very reliable, and total transportation costs for the three days came to VND 600,000.00, about USD 40.00. All the good birding sites are within easy reach from Da Lat.
Accommodation and food:
As mentioned, we stayed at the Novotel Da Lat. In all honesty, we were not entirely satisfied. The room was between the service elevator, a generator, and a chicken farm (the cocks let rip at 2:00 am), I certainly did not sleep as much as I would have liked. Breakfast, on the other hand, was outstanding; it really provided the energy needed for a morning's birding. Ha and I had most of our meals at the "Cafe de la Poste", just opposite the Novotel, once again, food and service were excellent value for money.
This and that:
For an introduction to travel and safety in Vietnam, please see my "Travel Information" page. On the whole, the Vietnamese are very friendly, and always eager to help. Language can be a problem, as English is not widely spoken outside the cities.
Whilst we had a bit of a drizzle the afternoon we arrived, the weather was excellent the next three days. Actually, it was much hotter than I had expected, the slog up Mount Lang Biang in particular was a very hot affair. However, it was quite dry, as opposed to the South, so it was not really unbearable. If you have sensitive skin, slap on plenty of sunscreen, Da Lat being at 1,400 meters, it is easy to get burned.
Both Richard and I had "Birds of South-East Asia" by Craig Robson along, probably the best guide for Vietnam. A book sadly missed was a good tome on Warbler identification. We really had problems getting to grips with some of the LBJ's.
31st of March:
We took the 11:30 flight from Saigon to Da Lat, it is only a 30-minute hop. On the way from the airport to the hotel, a Black-shouldered Kite hovered near the road. After getting the details out of the way (check in, lunch, a cold beer), we headed downtown and took a stroll around the lake. There was a slight drizzle throughout the afternoon, but there were still a few birds about. House Swifts were screaming around the hotel, whilst a couple of Black-collared Starlings made a racket in the two huge Pine trees outside the hotel. We saw both Ashy Drongo and a single Black-capped Kingfisher in the trees opposite the Sofitel Da Lat Palace. Dozens of fishermen, conveniently seated in front of a "Fishing not allowed" sign ringed the lake, but there were not really that many birds, apart from a handful of Chinese Pond Herons and a couple of Common Sandpipers. A single Osprey flew over the lake, and there were a fair number of Burmese Shrike around the Golf course next to the lake.
Not much exciting to chose as "Bird of the Day", but I take the Black-collared Starlings (first this year), Ha settles for the Black-capped Kingfisher.
1st of April:
April Fools Day!!!! Certainly felt like it when the next-door Rooster started crowing away at 2 am.
After a delicious breakfast, we headed to Datanla Waterfalls, just 5 km from Da Lat. That early in the morning, we avoided the horrendous entrance fee (VND 5,000.00, or about USD 0.30:-). The very first bird, right near the entrance, was a gorgeous Large Niltava. Not the least bit shy, it gave excellent views. On the way down to the waterfalls, our first endemic: Vietnamese Greenfinch. I first heard them calling, they sound a lot like the "normal" Greenfinches, but it was actually Ha that saw them first. A large, flowering bush was visited by Streaked Spiderhunter and a pair of Grey-headed Canary Flycatchers. All in all, not as many birds as we expected, so we headed back to the parking lot. Here, we came across a single Eurasian Jay, of the subspecies sinensis, with white sides of the face. Overhead, a massive Mountain Imperial Pigeon flew over, I first thought it was a raptor, that is how big they are.
As the driver was not due to pick us up for another few minutes, we explored a dirt-road leading from the parking lot. Good thing too, we saw some spectacular birds here: 2 or 3 White-cheeked Laughingthrushes gave excellent views, there were a number of Vinous-breasted Starlings in the very top of the Pines, and a very confiding Ashy Drongo entertained us until it was time to meet the car.
The first buses started pulling in, so we decided to head into town to meet Richard and Lan.
After lunch, and planning the next couple of days, Richard, Ha, and myself headed back to Datanla. We saw many of the same birds as in the morning, but a few goodies turned up. On the way down, there was a Chestnut-vented Nuthatch clambering about, and nearby there were both Black and Red Whiskered Bulbuls. We only heard Oriental Cuckoo, whilst the pair of Verditer Flycatchers were more obliging. We never did get down to the falls, as it sounded as if there were about 200 Vietnamese partying down there. We hung around at the top of the stairs, chatting with a visiting American birder, and from here saw Black-browed Barbet, Barred Cuckoo Dove and Black-crested Bulbul. On the way back, we added White-throated Fantail to our trip list.
Bird of the day for me was no doubt the endemic Vietnamese Greenfinches, Ha chose the Barred Cuckoo Dove, she was the one that saw the first.
2nd of April:
The bl...y Rooster set off like clockwork. And we were here to get some rest:-(
Today, we were of to Mount Lang Biang to look for another endemic. But I am afraid you will have to read on to know which one, and if we actually saw it.......
We arrived at the gate just before 07:00, from here it was on by Jeep. Not that a Jeep is actually needed to go further up, but the locals have a nice little racket here: no outside vehicles allowed, it will cost you VND 150,000.00 to take you to the start of the trail. I suggest that you do not walk though, you will get to the good parts of the forest to late. After the 5-minute ride, we headed up the hill. At the beginning, it is mainly Pine trees, but here we saw such beauties as Green-backed and Black-throated Tit. But we did not dawdle, as we wanted to head into the evergreen forest ASAP.
Richard, who has been to Da Lat more times than he can remember, was pretty confident as to where we would find what we were looking for. However, the first site, just after where the track splits in two, did not turn up anything. However, a little bit further on, Richard heard the prize bird. We hunkered down, and it didn't take long at all until we had our next endemic: three absolutely, stunningly beautiful, Collared Laughingthrushes!! For all I cared, we could have turned around right there and then, I was such a happy camper, but a mountain had to be climbed. Actually, most of the track is fairly easy, but it gets very steep towards the end, and temperatures were rising.
Obviously, nothing could top the Laughingthrushes, but there were other nice birds as well. We had excellent views of Mrs. Gould's Sunbirds, one of my favorites. Rufous-winged Fulvetta and Black-headed Sibia were not too shabby, either. As usual, views of the Lesser Shortwing were brief at best, and the Mountain Fulvettas were always on the move as well.
The top of the Mountain is far from spectacular, apart from the views of Da Lat, but, as Richard put it, we had to go up because "it is there" (I think I heard that one before somewhere). Therefore, we headed back down, this time all the way to the bottom to give the Pine forests a closer scrutiny.
It was really getting hot now, and things were certainly slowing down. Just as we left the evergreen forest, a solitary Black Eagle flew over real close. A bit further down we finally head excellent views of Golden-throated Barbet (subspecies auriculoris, which has to be the nicest of them all), after their calls had be accompanying us all morning. We also had less excellent views of locals carrying out logs, remember that this is a protected area!!!!!
Apart from Long-tailed Minivets, the Pines also held a good selection of Flycatchers, with Blue-and-white, Verditer, Grey-headed Canary, Mugimaki, and Little Pied Flycatchers all seen. Also in the Pines were Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker and Grey-headed Woodpecker.
After a long walk, we made it back to the main gate, a cold Shandy has never tasted that good.
No second-guessing our all "Bird of the Day": Collared Laughingthrush surely takes the award.
3rd of April:
I almost climbed over the wall to strangle the Rooster....
After breakfast, we headed to Ta Nung to look for the remaining two endemics. Again, this site is quite close to Da Lat, and has become the prime site for Grey-headed Crocias.
We had the Taxi drop us at the beginning of the road. One of the first birds we saw was Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo, a good start. Next, Richard spotted something white on top of a tree. The longer we looked at it, the more Richard and I were convinced that it was moving, we just couldn't ID it. Ha dismissed it as a flower, this proved to turn out to be true when we passed the tree later:-((
Before entering the forest, we had a look around the little pond at the beginning of the trail. Not much here, except up to three Streaked Spiderhunters in the same bush, sharing it with Mrs. Gould's Sunbirds. The disheartening thing to see were a couple of quarries that were eating into the forest. Looks like this is another site that might be lost in the not too distant future.
As we entered the forest, we heard Black-hooded Laughingthrush, but that would be the closest we would get to them. We left Ha behind, she still hasn't gotten over her fear of leeches. Her fear proved to be ungrounded; we did not see a single leech throughout our stay.
It was none too busy bird wise, but we did manage to add Mountain Bulbul, Rufous-backed Sibia, Ashy-throated and Chestnut-crowned Warbler to our trip list. Whilst crossing the little stream at the bottom of the valley, we heard Slaty-backed Forktail but failed miserably to catch as much as a glimpse of it.
Finally, we reached the spot were Richard figured we might see the remaining endemic and, once again, he proved to be right. Within a short time, we had excellent views of Grey-headed Crocias. They really put a show on for us, making sure that we could admire them from all sides.
As we had a flight to catch later in the day, we headed back, only to come across a bird whistling very loudly from the top of a tall tree, answered by another bird nearby. It looked Cuckoo-like, but as we only saw parts of it, the bird left us stumped. Ah well, can't win them all.
Once again, my "Bird of the Day" was an endemic, the Grey-headed Crocias, Ha went for the Gould's Sunbird.
All in all, it was an excellent trip, with fantastic birds. And I will connect with that last endemic sooner or later, watch these pages.....
P.S.: Richard checked literature and tapes, and figures that the mystery birds must have been Hodgson's Hawk Cuckoo and, after listening to the CD myself, I concur.
P.P.S.: Whilst we were in the forest, Ha added Scaly-breasted Munia to the trip list.
Once again, I have to thank Ha for her companionship, and Richard for a great time (not to mention the three endemics). As usual, all mistakes are mine.
List of species seen:
* denotes lifer; "E" = Endemic, DL = Da Lat, DT = Datanla, LB = Lang Biang, TN = Ta Nung
EN = Endangered, NT = Near-threatened