My quest for Spoon-billed Sandpiper
Whilst visiting our friends Jan and Tu earlier in the year in Thailand (where they run their own birding tour company: Nature Focus Thailand), my wife Ha and I started talking about them coming to see us in Vietnam and do a tour together of the North; an area they had not visited before. As I couldn't be bothered to handle the logistics, I contacted our mutual friend and fellow birder Richard "Ricardo" Craik. Not only an accomplished birder, he is also CEO, Managing Director and coffee maker of and for Vietnam Birding, THE foremost company specializing in, you guessed it, birding in Vietnam. He put together a competitive package for us and soon some drunken ramblings morphed into what would be an excellent trip to the North.
The Gang in Sa Pa © Jan and Tu
The idea was to find North Vietnamese specialties for Jan and Tu (they have seen pretty much everything there is to see in Thailand), to give a huge boost to Ha's lifelist, and for Richard and myself to drink beer. If we could find Spoon-billed Sandpiper along the way then that would come as an added bonus.
Vietnam is still a pretty cheap country to travel, to eat, and to drink beer. I took care of the room nights at the Victoria Sapa Resort & Spa, Ha took care of the train, and Richard put together a package for all the other transportation, accommodation, and some of the meals; this came to about USD 700.00 a person for 10 days; a steal if you ask me.
Transportation and accommodation:
We had cars arranged everywhere we went, this was part of the package. The quality of the car is not much of an issue in Vietnam, finding a driver that knows the birding sites is. This is particularly true for Xuan Thuy, the Red River Delta, as it is a bast... to find. Even when considering an independent birding trip to Vietnam, that particular site is best visited on an arranged tour.
The best way to go to Sa Pa is by overnight train. there are numerous options available; from the 5-star Victoria Express Train to a whole bunch of local trains. Ha had booked the Ratraco Train for us which is both comfortable and clean enough. I believe the tickets were VND 380,00 per person one way; just over USD 20.00.
You will need a boat to visit the best site at Xuan Thu, this needs to be arranged in advance and is yet another of the hurdles that this site throws at you.
The Victoria Sapa was of course the best accommodation by far with nice rooms, great food, hot water and working heaters!!!! The last item is an absolute must as it can get pretty cold up there.
In Cuc Phuong we stayed at the headquarters near the entrance. Rooms were large enough and very clean. There is additional accommodation available inside the Park, at Bong sub-station, but we did not use it this time.
In Tam Dao we stayed at the Me La Hotel. This used to be the hotel of choice but since Meki does no longer look after it, it is falling apart fast. I hope that they get their stuff together as the staff are friendly and the food is good.
The biggest surprise was Xuan Thuy. Accommodation here used to rate amongst the worst I have ever seen and thus we were pleasantly surprised to see the new, large, friendly, comfortable, clean and livable room; in short the new rooms were everything that the old rooms were not. As to actually reserving the rooms: as above go trough a tour company as it will be neigh well impossible otherwise.
Contrary to "Apocalypse Now" Vietnam is not all hot, steamy jungle; it can get pretty cold in the North. Having worked in Sa Pa before, I knew to lug along a full-sized winter jacket, gloves, and a hat and I certainly did not regret taking all that along.
It was much milder at lower elevations and even in Sa Pa it became warm enough during the day to enjoy our lunches "al fresco". We did not have much rain but we did have a lot of wind at times, in particular in Sa Pa. Temperatures ranged from a low of 10° Centigrade to well over 20°, often within the same day.
Overall, we were very lucky with the weather but it would be prudent to come prepared when visiting northern Vietnam in winter.
Food and Drink:
With a few notable exceptions in Lao Cai and Ha Noi, food was good throughout. We did make the best of the good Western food at the Victoria Resort and at the Me La Hotel; other meals were Vietnamese Cuisine. Vietnamese food might be blander than Thai cooking but the liberal use of fresh herbs and "Nuoc Mam", or fish sauce, make it just as good in my opinion.
Portions are generally huge and in the national parks the food is very cheap; USD 5.00 per person will be more than enough to have the tables groan under the weight of a variety of dishes.
Luckily (for Richard and myself) Vietnamese love beer and as such it is available everywhere. I could not find my preferred Tiger Beer everywhere, but Ha Noi beer is very decent, especially after the 5th bottle.
You prefer wine? Tough luck, with the exception of the Victoria Resort that, thanks to the wine-loving GM Ronan, has an outstanding wine list.
For the wimpy birders out there: soft drinks and green tea is widely available. We also had a lot of "3-in-one" coffee and tea to take along on our hikes.
Dangers and annoyances:
After a leech-less trip to the Oman earlier (trip report is here: Oman 2008), Ha enjoyed yet another trip without seeing a single one of those critters. As the presence of these little blood-suckers depends very much on the amount of recent rain, it might be a good idea to take leech socks along, the Oriental Bird Club sells them and it is all for a good cause to boot.
Vietnam is generally a very safe country but common sense should, like everywhere, prevail. There have been cases of theft on the train; do not leave your belongings unattended (and the thieves on the trains are not necessarily Vietnamese).
Traffic is atrocious; keep your eyes peeled when crossing streets in the cities.
In Sa Pa you will frequently hear old minority ladies go "Hashish? Opium? Heroin? Beer?". Apart from the fact that the "drugs" might only be dried tea leaves, do bear in mind that penalties for drug crimes are severe, up to and including corporal punishment.
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.
Ronan Bianchi, General Manager of the Victoria Sapa Resort & Spa not only graciously hosted us , he also made sure that we were extremely well looked after.
Our driver, Mr. Minh, got us around safely for most of the trip and, most importantly, he did actually know where Xuan Thuy was.
Mr. Vui, our guide at Van Long without whom we would probably not have seen the Langurs.
At Xuan Thuy it was Mr. Anh. Great eyes though I still have not forgiven him for being the only one that saw Spoon-billed Sandpiper.
All the staff at the various hotels and guesthouses.
Jan and Tu, great people, great birders, great photographers, great fun. See you in Cambodia.
Richard, fellow Anorak in Vietnam and organizer of the tour. Also risking life, limb, and liver to ensure that I would not have to drink beer on my own with all these other tea-totaling do-gooders.
And last, but by no means least, my lovely wife Ha; she lightens up every trip more than any bird could (though had we seen the Spoon-billed Sandpiper....)
As usual all mistakes, omissions (beer induced more likely than not) and errors are all mine. Want to give me hell? Drop me a line at hannostamm (at) hotmail (dot) com.
9th of December:
Ha and I had arrived the previous evening from Siem Reap. Thanks to a friend we were roughing it at the Intercontinental by the Westlake and woke up in a rather nice room and to fantastic, sunny weather. After a copious breakfast, Ha tried to take photos of Japanese White-eyes from our balcony, without success, whilst we also saw Oriental Magpie Robin, Common Sandpiper, and White-throated Fantail here.
Richard, Jan, and Tu had all met up at the airport and came to pick us up for lunch. We went to an old favorite of ours, the "La Place" restaurant next to the Hanoi Cathedral but the quality of food and the service had regrettably headed south.
But nothing could spoil our mood, for that the weather was just too outstanding. There are a few days in autumn and spring when this city is at its best with blue skies and pleasant temperatures; it can be a bit of a hellhole to live in at other times.
After booking dinner at a popular restaurant next to Hoan Kiem Lake we did the touristy bit, taking in the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the One Pillar Pagoda, ticking Common Tailorbird, Spotted Dove, Red-whiskered Bulbul and Eurasian Tree Sparrow (oh yeah) along the way.
After a fairly good dinner, I was exceptionally let in in shorts, we headed for the train station to board the 21:30 train for Lao Cai. We amused ourselves watching tearful goodbyes on the platform before the train left right on time. Everybody else hit the sack pretty early, Richard in the cabin next to us, but I headed for the restaurant carriage which obviously was on the other end of the train. I could have stayed there for the whole trip, but when the train staff started singing Karaoke, I beat a hasty retreat (the staff commonly sell their berths on the train and thus have nowhere to sleep).
No "Bird of the Day" as the trip hadn't really started yet, no way I am going to write down Tree Sparrow.
10th of December:
As usual, the train ride was a bit rough for me as the berth is just a little too short; impossible to stretch out without touching the walls on both ends. Obviously. Ha, Jan, and Tu did not have that problem being of average Asian size. Richard looked like he had slept well, too and soon we had located the bus that was waiting to take us to Sa Pa, 38 kilometers up into the mountains.
The General Manager of the Victoria, Ronan, and his team were on hand to great us. After a lot of hellos, I still knew some of the staff from when I worked there, we checked into our comfortable rooms and headed for an excellent breakfast. Obviously, we were all keen to start birding and the weather, whilst not as nice as in Ha Noi, looked OK. The problem with that region is that it can get extremely foggy with visibility bad enough to make birding all but impossible.
Anyway, thinks looked good and we walked across town to Ham Rong, ticking Black-headed Greenfinches in the hotel parking lot as we left. Ham Rong is a public park that can be very good for birds though it can get very busy, especially on weekends when many Hanoians come up for the "romantic" setting. As we were passing the numerous shops just before the entrance that sell all sort of dried mushrooms and herbs, we noticed a flock of birds in a tree next to the stairs. It was a very mixed flock and within seconds we had Blue-winged Minlas, stunning Black-throated Tits, Lemon-rumped Warbler, Whiskered Yuhinas and Red-billed Leiothrix on our trip list. What a fantastic start with some real quality birds. This could not be said for the White-rumped Shama we saw just inside the park. Whilst a nice bird in its own right, it certainly was an escaped cage bird.
Continuing along the edge of the park we saw some Silver-eared Mesias together with a flock of Japanese White-eyes whilst only Jan and I managed to get on a Common Rosefinch. Everybody did manage to see the pair of Grey Bushchats as well as a lone Long-tailed Shrike. We stopped at a little clearing behind the "Minority House" (used for very touristy shows and blaring out horrible music; Vietnamese are mostly deaf I think) and scanned the hillside. Brown-breasted Bulbuls were the most common birds here, along with 3 - 4 White-browed Laughingthrushes.
We moved to the highest point of the park, were a few caged Ostriches provided an unusual sight, before moving back down the other side of the park. More Bulbuls but the more interesting bird here was a Collared Finchbill. We also finally saw a Hill Prinia after having heard a few already as well as a Yellow-cheeked Tit. Ha called out a Flycatcher but by the time we rushed over there it had gone. Luckily for us it did come back just a few seconds later and, after much discussion and comparing of photographs, we called it a female Pale Blue Flycatcher.
Not a bad morning and we headed off for lunch at the Cat Cat Guesthouse. Still the same owner and still the same excellent food, but they have now installed an elevator, meaning the long slog up the stairs is no more. It was warm enough by now to eat on the terrace and we thus enjoyed views of Sa Pa and a Crested Goshawk and a Little Heron, the latter also pretending to be a raptor.
Well fed we headed out of town to Thac Bac, or Silver Waterfall. This used to be a pretty good site for birding but the on-going road works, which made getting to the site very long as the road was temporarily closed on a couple of occasions, have really thrashed it. It was thus with little hope that we climbed the stairs that lead up one side and down the other. Furthermore, there were quite a few people around, Richard and I are now present in a few more photo albums somewhere in Vietnam. We were thus more than just pleasantly surprised when we saw the bird that this site is known for, a Little Forktail. This is probably the most accessible site in Vietnam for this bird and Tu, Ha and Jan were well chuffed with, what for them, was a lifer. The Plumbeous and White-capped Water Redstarts we also saw here added to what was a successful first day.
Back at the hotel we had a hot shower and a fantastic dinner, joined by Ronan and a good bottle of red wine. "Bird of the Day" was the Black-throated Tit for Richard and the Yellow-cheeked Tit for Ha. That surprised me a little as I thought she would go for the Forktail as Jan and Tu did, but then she does not care too much about "lifers". I took the Common Rosefinch as it was new for my Vietnam list.
11th of December:
We had asked Ronan for breakfast boxes at 06:00 but he figured there would already be some food on the buffet even though breakfast did not officially start until half an hour later. The "some" turned out to be a full-blown feast with the Asians amongst us pigging out on Pho, Vietnamese noodle soup, and omelets but admittedly Richard and I tucked in as well.
Once the Thai and Vietnamese tour participants were done with their 4 or 5 bowls of soup, we headed for Tram Ton, or Pass of Clouds, the highest point on the Sa Pa - Binh Lu road, a freezing 2,000 meters up. Jan and Tu were wrapped up as if heading for a polar expedition but I wasn't laughing; it was only about 11° but felt more like -10°. Trying to warm up it was at this time that Ha told me that she had had only one sachet of tea left that morning and that the tea resembled water more than anything else. But at least it was hot water.
Nobody really wanted to leave the car I think, but there was birding to be done and we took the trail leading right from the National Park Office. After a few hundred meters we reached a first clearing where Jan spotted a bird far away, this turned out to be a Red-billed Blue Magpie. With it was a Collared Treepie, but only Jan, Richard and I were looking at the right spot at the right time; it disappeared very quickly. There was a fair bit of movement in the trees around the clearing, with a few Yellow-cheeked Tits, Yellow-browed Tits, Chestnut-flanked White-eyes and Red-tailed Minlas.
As we continued to the "Golden Stream Love Waterfall" (no really that is the name though we never managed to find the waterfall) the first Golden -throated Barbets started calling in the far distance. As we were looking for a good place to cross, Tu peeked around the corner and urgently beckoned us over for good views of a Spotted Forktail. It took off and as we were waiting for it to return we saw yet another Forktail, this time a Slaty-backed Forktail. Three species of a stunning family in less than 24 hours has to be pretty good going, we sure all were happy as pigs in
We left Jan and Tu behind as they were trying to get a shot of the Spotted Forktail and motored on. There is pretty dense vegetation at the beginning of the trail and it was here that we saw Chestnut-tailed Minlas, Rusty-capped Fulvettas, a single Buff-barred Warbler, and a male Green-tailed Sunbird of the sub-species koelzi with its rich rufous mantle. The small valley we were in is actually a dead-end and we only continued for a couple of hundred meters before stopping at a local farmers hut and waiting for the Thais to catch up. Apart from the birds we had seen earlier, it was here that we saw Orange-bellied Leafbird and two White-tailed Nuthatches. People have seen Beautiful Nuthatch at that particular stop but we were not quite all that lucky.
With a good morning's birding under our belts we headed back for lunch, ticking White Wagtail and Siberian Stonechat along the way.
As the food was very good the previous day we once again headed back to the Cat Cat Guesthouse and, once again, were not disappointed. Whilst waiting for our food to arrive, we watched the antics of Japanese White-eyes and Yellow-browed Warblers from the terrace.
After lunch we drove to O Quy Ho. Birding along the road used to be very good but a lot of the brush that used to be here has been turned into farmland and the going was pretty slow. This was not helped by the fact that the weather changed and temperatures plummeted; it was actually colder than earlier that morning. There was not much new here though a Peregrine flying over added a little excitement whereas the first Olive-backed Pipits were only duly noted before we all decided that we had had enough and that it was time for a hot shower, cold beer, and some good food at the Victoria.
Jan, Ha, Tu, and I all chose the Spotted Forktail as our "Bird of the Day", only Richard had to be the odd one out and took the Collared Treepie.
12th of December:
After another copious breakfast (the Asian group members had even more to eat than the previous day) we headed back to Tram Ton once more. We promptly got caught up in construction and waited quite a while for the road to be passable again. Once back at the Park Headquarter we intended to take the trail that eventually leads to the very top of Mount Fansipan, at 3,143 meters the highest peak in Vietnam. However, it was extremely windy that morning and we decided to head back to the same valley we had gone to the previous day as it is a little more sheltered.
Walking through the densely vegetated first part of the path we discovered a small flock of Golden-breasted and Rusty-capped Fulvettas trying to stay out of the gale-force winds. Reaching the clearing that we had visited the previous day our gamble paid off; it was less windy here and there was a huge mixed-species flock present. I am sure we looked pretty pathetic trying to get on every bird at once but we eventually sorted it out: Red-tailed, Chestnut-tailed, and Blue-winged Minlas, Rufous-winged and Gold-breasted Fulvettas, White-bellied Yuhinas, Chestnut-flanked White-eyes and Ashy-throated, Black-faced and Buff-barred Warbler all in one place; really not a bad ten minutes!
We continued on to the stream where, once again, we saw Spotted Forktail and where, once again, Tu and Jan failed miserably to take a photo of it as it was chased off by a dog.
We had to slowly head back as we had a train to catch that night. For something different we had lunch at the Cat Cat Guesthouse. The wind had died down some and temperatures had risen; Richard and I promptly managed to get sun-burned. It was a looong lunch though as we had no more birding to do that day and therefore started tucking into the beers. Tu and the ladies headed off for some shopping whilst Richard and I went back to the Victoria to slowly get our stuff together.
Once back down in Lao Cai, from where the trains for Ha Noi leave, we had dinner at the "Emotions Cafe & Restaurant". Emotions ran high when we realized that we had been suckered: the only reason we went there was that we were told that the tickets would be delivered there; this was an outright lie and we felt a little ripped off (you'd think with more than a 100 years in Asia between us we would have known better). Avoid if you can; apart from the fact that the food was shite, they did not even have cold beer. Good thing the train was on time and soon we were off back to Ha Noi.
"Birds of the Day" were a varied lot, with Ha taking the Chestnut-fronted Shrike-Babbler, Jan the Black-faced Warbler, Tu settling for Red-tailed Minla and Richard and I choosing Golden-breasted Fulvetta.
13th of December:
I actually slept quite well on the train for a change (I wonder if the previous evening's 11 beers had anything to do with that) and I woke up just a few minutes before our 04:45 arrival. Getting out of the station we were greeted by the usual scrum of Xe Om (motorbike taxi) drivers, hustlers and pimps, but we shouldered through quickly to where Mr. Minh was waiting for us with the van. The weather was not as good as it had been a few days earlier, it drizzled all the way of the three-hour drive to Cuc Phuong National Park. Lots of wet Black Drongos on the telephone wires along the road. We stopped for a very good Pho on the way; the only thing that dampened my appetite a bit was a huge jar of rice wine with what must have been a 5 meter long Cobra floating in it.
The weather was still none too good when we arrived and, after ticking off about 40 Eurasian Blackbirds, we headed for the Endangered Primate Rescue Center. Vietnam is home to 24 species of primates, of which 5 are endemic. As with most wildlife, the primates are under considerable pressure due to hunting and habitat loss; the Center does an invaluable job trying to ensure that future generations will have a chance to see these fantastic animals. If in Cuc Phuong, do visit and support Tilo Nadler, the Director, and his team.
It was time for lunch, which we had at the restaurant at the entrance to the park. Food was pretty good and plentiful; it would stay that way throughout our stay.
In the afternoon we went to Van Long, an area with a big lake and plenty of limestone karsts about 45 minutes from Cuc Phuong. Also know as the "Dry Halong Bay" I personally think it is actually nicer than the original.
Richard had contacted Mr. Vui and arranged for him to be guide to find the local attraction, Delacour's Langurs. Three boats were also quickly arranged and we set off. The shallow water is very attractive to both resident and wintering herons and egrets, with Chinese Pond-herons, Little, Cattle, Great Egrets and Grey Herons all present in large numbers. Common Kingfishers were indeed common, with 1 or 2 White-breasted Kingfishers thrown in for good measure. A Greater Coucal was sunning itself on a rock whilst another rock nearby was home to a Blue Whistling Thrush. However, no sign of the monkeys and our boat lady figured it was getting too late; but we had the feeling that she was just tired and wanted to turn around. Mr. Vui thought that we should push on a little further and just a few minutes later, we had our prize in the bag: a group of 14 Delacour's Langurs, probably 10% of the entire population of this Vietnamese endemic. Certainly one of the highlights of the trip as these primates are really beautiful in their white "shorts". Jan and Tu got their digiscoping gear set up and we all enjoyed the views for quite some time, interrupted only by a Striped Watersnake swimming by. It was getting late and we headed back into a stunning sunset, meeting a French group of tourists that probably had no idea what beautiful birds and animals were just a few minutes away (hotels have become very expensive in the cities here in Vietnam and the travel agents try to cart their guests out to the cheaper country side). As we got back into the van, we could not help but notice a huge cement factory being built nearby, this does not bode well for the Langurs.
Dinner and beers beckoned, after which we spent a few minutes looking for owls. No luck, probably because it was a weekend and there was a massive Karaoke session going on, no self-respecting owl was going to compete with that.
"Bird of the Day" for Ha, Richard and myself was actually not a bird but the Delacour's Langurs. Tu and Jan stayed true to the spirit and took the Blackbirds, if I remember correctly they were lifers for both of them.
14th of December:
A fairly early start saw us have a quick breakfast and head off for Bong Substation, 18 kilometers inside the park. The idea was to surprise a few Pittas, but no luck. We did however spook a Crested Serpent Eagle and saw a White's Thrush by the side of the road. Ha and I had seen one of those nesting in Da Lat earlier in the year, but that has now been split by some into Small-billed Scaly Thrush.
Once at Bong, we scanned the trees around the big grassy area that is there. First birds were a pair of Greater Flamebacks and a few Olive-backed Pipits. However, it was when scanning yet another large flock of Eurasian Blackbirds that things got interesting as, feeding with the Blackbirds, we saw Japanese, a male Eye-browed, and another male Black-breasted Thrush. A real bonanza if, like me, you are a Thrush fan.
After this much excitement, things slowed down a little on the way to the beginning of the "Loop Trail" though a soaring Mountain Hawk-Eagle was a nice sight. This trail can be very good for birds at times, at other times it is incredibly slow birding; that morning was obviously one of the slower days. Richard told us that he had seen a lot of dead birds, including Pittas, on a tour to Cuc Phuong earlier in the year, when Vietnam was in the grip of an exceptional cold spell, and that there appeared to be a lot less birds about. We had had that impression in Sapa already, but maybe we were just plain unlucky.
It started off well enough, with Black-crested Bulbul on the way to the trail and a small flock of White-bellied Yuhinas at the bottom of the first stairs. After that, it was deadly quiet for ages. Richard tried his tape a couple of times and whilst we had Bar-bellied Pittas respond on three occasions, they refused to come into view. Just before we reached the highest point of the trail, we did finally come across a feeding flock which had a lot of good stuff. Most conspicuous were a couple of Lesser Racket-tailed Drongos and Sultan Tits. There were lots of different warbles in that flock and they were a lot harder to sort out, as usual they were never sitting still for any length of time. Luckily, the flock stayed put and we eventually saw (deep breath): Chinese Leaf Warbler, Grey-crowned Warbler, Eastern Crowned Warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler, Two-barred Warbler, Grey-throated Warbler and Sulphur-breasted Warbler. I do not think that I have ever seen that many warblers in any one place, it was really amazing and a moment I am not likely to forget in a hurry. It also helped to have Tu there as his warbler ID skills are considerably better than those of the rest of the group; he patiently pointed out all the salient features until even I managed to see the sometimes subtle differences. Ha also saw a, in her words "a thrush-sized bird", the description had all of us scratching our heads. Luckily, she saw the bird again and we all got our bins on it, it was a Grey-throated Babbler. Ha is a fantastic birder, but when she gets hungry (which she frequently does) she begins to hallucinateJJ.
No problem ID'ing the Red-vented Barbet that flew in right in front of us and which got Jan and Tu all excited as it was yet another lifer for them. Other birds seen here were Grey-headed Pigmy Woodpecker, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher and Lesser Yellownape. We also added another mammal, a Pallas's Squirrel.
After that it got very quiet again until we had our coffee break at the top. Not birds this time, but students from the University of Journalism. Whilst I do like Vietnam, and the Vietnamese, most of the time (hey, I even love one of them: my wife Ha), they do have this annoying habit of being extremely noisy, especially when out and about in the tranquil nature. Vietnamese hate it when it is quiet and they will do their best to change that; we probably heard these kids a Mile away. They were all very friendly, but birding was out of the question and, after some more picture taking (them of us Richard and me; must be our rugged good looks), we started down the trail.
Not many birds after that, though we did see two female Red-headed Trogons. Further down, we gave the usual place a shot and quickly happened on a single Limestone Wren Babbler. Hard as we tried we did not manage to get very good views of it and we continued bon down where Ha quickly spotted another 6, much more obliging, Wren Babblers.
Just we reached the restaurant at Bong we also saw a Black Giant Squirrel. Luckily for us, being almost 3 hour late for lunch did not create any problems (they know both Richard in particular and birders in general) and we sat down for a scrumptious meal.
Being that late, we only had about 2 hours left for the "Valley Trail". Not too much though a couple of Hill Mynas were nice. We also added yet another warbler, a Dusky Warbler this time whilst Red-whiskered Bulbuls were everywhere. Finally, we all also had close views of a mammalian lifer for all of us, an Inornate Squirrel.
Not so bad on the whole, Jan and Tu also saw Silver-breasted Broadbill, Indochinese Cuckoo-shrike, Scarlet Minivet, and Large Woodshrike.
Dinner was at the HQ again; as lunch had been really late I stuck mostly to a liquid diet. Thanks to a foreign lady that walked into the restaurant, we also had something to gossip about: she was dressed in full backpacker regalia (fisherman's pants, lots of bracelets, scarves, and the odd tie-dyed thingy) but, as a special touch, wore one of those rattan baskets that the minority ladies use on her back. We figured that she was trying to show the Vietnamese that she was "one of them", which is pretty pathetic. ALL foreigners are considered rich and no Vietnamese would carry a minority basket if he could afford to do otherwise. Anyway, we got a chuckle out of it, I only wished I had had the presence of mind to take a photo as she buggered off sharpish when she noticed that nobody wanted to serve her.
Ha chose the Grey-throated Babbler (thrush-sized, remember?) as "Bird of the Day", whilst Jan and Tu took the Red-vented Barbet. Richard and I both wrote down Thrushes, he the Eye-browed and I the Black-breasted.
15th of December:
Breakfast and a short walk to the Botanical Garden. This is usually locked and you need to ask somebody at the Head Quarter reception to let you in.
The birding started off extremely slowly with only Rufescent Prinia, Striped Tit-babbler and Racket-tailed Treepie seen in the first couple of hours, at which time we happened on a small mixed-species flock that included a female Blue-naped Monarch, White-bellied Yuhinas, Sultan Tit, a Bianchi's Warbler and an Eastern Striped Squirrel.
It was only on the way back, close to the gate, that we started seeing a few more birds. Best of the lot was probably a large flock of mostly Racket-tailed Treepies that also had White-crested Laughingthrushes and Ratchet-tailed Treepies moving along. In that same area we also saw a Blue-winged Leafbird as well as a very nice male Crimson Sunbird. Whilst Richard climbed over the gate to get the key (the receptionist that was supposed to have let us out forgot) we heard a Banded Bay Cuckoo and saw a Green-eared Barbet.
We had our last lunch at Cuc Phuong before tackling the 3.5-hour drive to Xuan Thuy. Not much noteworthy on the way and we reached Xuan Thuy without any delay. Before getting to the visitor's center, we had the first lifers for Jan and Tu, a single juvenile Red-billed Starling and 2 Light-vented Bulbuls. I mentioned it before, but the new accommodation is really pretty good. Basic for sure, but compared to the old dungeons the rooms are outright luxurious. I just couldn't help the feeling that, once again, some NGO had poured in a lot of money without oversight. How else to explain that there are only 4 guest rooms but a huge administrative building, a museum that is closed, and a huge electrically operated entrance gate? Anyway, staff were friendly, though they had managed to forget our booking, even though this had been confirmed a couple of times prior to our arrival. Good thing there were no other guests; we did a quick spin whilst the rooms were prepared for us.
There were plenty of herons and egrets about, but none of he hoped-for Chinese Egrets, hard as we looked. A male Pied Harrier was not too bad, though; there were also a couple of Eastern Marsh Harriers around. One of the shrimp ponds had two large flocks of Common Teal and Spot-billed Ducks, whilst another pond was home to Spotted Redshank and Black-tailed Godwits. As we were heading back to the center, we had good views of one each of Zitting Cisticola, Plain Prinia, and Richards Pipit at the entrance to the compound whilst a small flock of Spangled Drongos flew by.
Dinner was very, very good (am I glad that Vietnamese food is generally low in calories; something that cannot be said about the beers we had with dinner); though part of the dinner was eaten in the dark due to a power failure. The staff did try to rig up a small generator with the usual disdain for personal safety when handling electrical equipment, but did not succeed. Thus it was in a room lit by various torches that we chose our "Bird of the Day": Tu and Jan chose their lifer seen earlier, Red-billed Starling, Ha the Crimson Sunbird, I took the Bianchi's Warbler which was a lifer for me, and I just realized that I am still waiting for Richard to tell me what is bird that day was.
16th of December:
As we got up, power went off once again. Stumbling through the dark, Ha was called by the driver to let us know that the van had a flat tire and that the spare was flat as well. Great start but we hoped that he would sort this out by the time we had our breakfast of instant noodles and hard-boiled egg. However, this was not the case. Luckily we were in Vietnam and, after a few minutes of discussion, the park employees were roused and we hopped on the back of their motorbikes. I am not very good at riding pillion but I did manage to open my eyes long enough to see quite a few Black-winged Stilts as well as a flock of at least 200 Red-billed Starlings, but I was very happy when the 20-minute ride was over. At the harbor, actually just a few steps leading to the water's edge, we were greeted by our boat as well as a few Brown-headed and Black-headed Gulls.
Our goal was Con Lu Island, a tiny island that was even smaller than usual as the tide was very high. The island is one part sand, one part Casuarinas and 8 parts assorted plastic, polyurethane and a variety of other household rubbish. However, it is also a very good spot for waders and migrants and one of the few places where Spoon-billed Sandpipers are regularly seen. Thus, it was with much anticipation that we hopped off the boat and into the freezing water which luckily was only between ankle- (for Richard and me) to knee-deep (for everyone else) and waded to the island. Whilst quite cool, the weather was clear and a lot better than it can be at this time of the year.
As soon as we were on the island, we saw a large mixed flock of waders and started scanning it very carefully. The main "ingredient" were Kentish Plovers (no "White-faced Plovers for which I always keep an eye out; Richard, Ha and I had seen a couple of those just a few weeks earlier near Saigon), a couple of Sanderlings, Broad-billed Sandpipers, Greater Sandplovers, and Red-necked Stints.
The water started slowly retreating, followed by the waders, followed by us. A fairly large flock of Eurasian Curlews came in, followed by 30 or so "Heuglin's" Gulls and, amongst them, one or two Black-tailed Gulls.
Our guide, Mr. Anh, had spotted another large flock of waders and we approached it in a sort of crouching shuffle. After scanning the entire flock, Mr. Anh urgently called us to his scope and pointed out a Spoon-billed Sandpiper. After trying for ages I thought I was on it but reluctantly had to scratch it from my list again as I could just not honestly convince myself. Very disappointing and it looks like I will have to wait another year after having previously dipped the bird in Hong Kong and Thailand (just 10 days after this trip, Spoon-billed Sandpipers where seen on Quan Lan Island by John Pilgrim).
We saw some more good birds after that, including good views of a Peregrine, both Great and Red Knot, Grey Plovers, Bar-tailed Godwits and a Ruddy Turnstone, but I was desolate having missed the Sandpiper.
The tide was well out by now and we had to wade a very long way back to the boat. The trip back to the mainland was quite pleasant, passing by all the fishermen's stilted huts, and the earlier dip was soon forgotten.
After lunch we set off for the old HQ. The abominable old accommodation had been torn down, which is really no loss. We walked along the main dyke, soon seeing the first of what would eventually be at least 15 Slaty-breasted Rails; this area must be one of the best sites anywhere for this bird. Not at all shy, either.
The Mangroves were pretty full with both Brown and Long-tailed Shrikes, Black Drongos, and Oriental Magpie Robins. Not much in the way of ducks, though we did see a White-breasted Waterhen behaving like one, the way it was swimming right across a large shrimp pond.
We were making very slow progress and it was quite late when we came to some serious repair work along the dyke. No way to go over it and going round it to where the Black-faced Spoonbills often hang out would have taken us too long and we turned around rather reluctantly. We had hardly walked 10 meters when 3 Black-faced Spoonbills flew right past us! Not only that, but a couple of minutes later we had one land right next to us and by the time it was dark we had seen about ten birds. Not bad, considering that, whilst the species has made a comeback in recent years (except in Vietnam), there are still thought to be only about 2,000 birds worldwide.
We headed back to the visitor's center for more good food, beer, and power cuts. Apart from Ha, who went for the Slaty-breasted Rail, everyone else chose the Black-faced Spoonbill as their "Bird of the Day".
17th of December:
A not too early start to head back to Ha Noi and on to our last stop of our Northern Vietnam Tour, Tam Dao. First we had to once again negotiate the narrow roads of the Xuan Thuy Delta and, for once, our driver misjudged the width of the road, resulting in a motorized tricycle taking off with one of our rear-view mirrors.
In Ha Noi we just stopped for a very forgettable meal at the "Mocca Cafe" before tackling the last hour or so to take us to the hill station of Tam Dao. Plenty of guest houses and even a Golf course have gone up since I last visited; though I am not sure where exactly the owners think all the punters to fill their establishments are meant to come from.
Checked into the Mela Hotel as quickly as possible and then had the driver take us up the water tank trail. The trail is actually a road now that goes all the way to the Bamboo forest. However, the road has been cut by a landslide a few months ago and so far not repaired, meaning that there is little traffic (why the road was built in the first place is another story).
As soon as we got out of the car, a couple of us got onto an Indochinese Green Magpie, whilst everybody saw the Silver-eared Mesias. It was a bit misty and fairly cool, even the male Fork-tailed Sunbird we saw a little down the road looked decidedly unhappy. As we continued further down the road, we kept on flushing a bird from the drain running along it, and finally nailed it as a Red-throated Pipit.
We were entertained by a young couple that kept on passing us, carrying Bamboo to the beginning of the road. Like many Vietnamese the lad considered himself quite the singer; like many Vietnamese he was anything but. Good thing then that the Grey-cheeked Fulvettas were obviously tone-deaf.
We only heard Golden-throated Barbet and Blue Whistling Thrush but did see a Red-headed Trogon. An Orange-bellied Leafbird was a nice addition to our list and we did have a few pretty good birds just before heading home. First was a small flock of Grey Laughingthrushes that came in pretty quickly to Richard's tape though they did manage to be quite elusive even then. Golden Babblers were very nice and we did get the briefest of glimpses of a Collared Babbler. This was the last bird of the day, not only was it getting dark, it was also rapidly getting cold. I was going to nick a jacket that the lad cutting Bamboo had left by the side of the road; lucky for him that he must have been about a quarter of my size.
As mentioned in the introduction it appears that the Mela Hotel is being run down, either on purpose or due to neglect. Nowhere was this more evident than with the hot water, or rather the absence of the same. The water was really only a trickle of ice-cubes and taking a shower was not much fun. No wonder then that we all showed up for dinner fully dressed in jackets, hats, and gloves.
The food was pretty good as a matter of fact, and the staff were friendly and helpful as we enjoyed our meal and watched them put up Christmas decoration. Just a shame that they had no tea. Actually, they did but it was strawberry-flavored Lipton tea, tasted just like chewing gum.
Jan, Tu, and I all took the Fork-tailed Sunbird as "Bird of the Day"; Richard, who had the best views, settled for the Collared Babbler and Ha wrote down the Red-headed Trogon, being a great fan of Trogons in general.
We left Ha and Richard watching the Vietnam - Singapore football match (which Vietnam won and then went on to beat Thailand in the final for the first time in 40 years) and headed off to a very cold bed. I found out the next day that the air-conditioner in the room can actually be set to heat, not that it made much difference.
18th of December:
Good breakfast! Eggs, toast, noodle soup, the works. Still no black tea, but Ha had just enough "three-in-one" tea sachets left for all of us.
We first headed for the stairs leading up the transmitter tower. Literally within seconds we heard Laughingthrushes and, with the help of a recording, we got much better views of the Grey Laughingthrushes than the previous day. Not a bad start and it got better with a flock of Black-chinned Yuhinas hot on the heels of the Laughingthrushes. I like all Yuhinas, but this is certainly one of the smarter ones and the drawing in the field guide does it no justice at all. There were also quite a few Black Bulbuls around but none of the white-headed form that occurs here.
We headed back the stairs, just as all the shop owners were setting up, and went back to the water tank trail. The weather looked good and it was quickly getting warmer and it was getting busier as far as birds were concerned. Like everywhere else, Japanese White-eyes were very common, and there were quite a few White-bellied Yuhinas about as well. Everybody except me managed to see Puff-throated Bulbuls; I sometimes wonder if this hobby is really for me or if I should go into train spotting (now that would be easy as there is only one railway in Vietnam).
By now it had become quite warm and we stopped to have some coffee and to remove various layers of warm clothing, watching yet another (same?) Green-tailed Sunbird. Richard was bored and tried his MP3 player. He was probably as surprised as everybody else when a small flock of Short-tailed Parrotbills promptly showed up; one of the target species here. I knew right there what Ha's "Bird of the Day" would beJ. I heard another bird nearby and found a Slaty-bellied Tesia that, uncharacteristically, posed right out in the open. Not only that, it continued to do so long enough for Ha to get a good look at it as well.
Continuing towards the Bamboo forest, only Richard managed views of an Orange-flanked Bush-robin, and only Jan and Tu saw both Mountain Tailorbird and Dusky Warbler. However, birds enjoyed by everybody were some more Collared and Golden Babblers, Common and Dark-necked Tailorbirds and Chestnut-crowned Warbler. Once inside the Bamboo we tried very hard for Greater Rufous-headed Parrotbill, without success though we did find a group of Spot-necked Babblers with which the Parrotbills often associate.
We headed back, enjoying the fantastic weather but of course still keeping an eye open for the odd bird. A Streaked Spiderhunter did indeed streak by and a pair of Chestnut Buntings kept on leap-frogging in front of us. We spent a long time looking for a Flowerpecker that was calling from a tree, but somehow we could not agree on a description until we figured out that there were actually two different species involved, with both Yellow-vented and Fire breasted Flowerpeckers in the same tree. As we came back into Tam Dao, Jan and Tu saw their last lifer for the trip with 3 Chestnut Bulbuls high up in a tree.
We had lunch at the Mela Hotel, watching a Common Buzzard perched outside the dining room and then went for a spin around Tam Dao proper. There used to be a fair bit of scrub around, good for birds, but that has all been turned into "Su su" (Chayote in English) plantations and there was nothing about. We did head down the path to the Thac Bac waterfall, but all that we saw there was a Plumbeous Water Redstart, and a Blue Whistling Thrush of the sub-species caeruleus, a winter visitor.
Another freezing shower, another good meal and the usual search for "Bird of the Day". I had correctly guessed that Ha would go for the Short-tailed Parrotbill, as did Richard. Tu chose the Chestnut Bulbul, Jan the Black-chinned Yuhina and I settled for the Grey Laughingthrushes.
19th of December:
And that was pretty much the end. We did stop on the way down from Tam Dao and had very distant views of a couple of Red-billed Blue Magpies, lots and lots of Yellow-browed Warblers, with a lone Bianchi's Warbler thrown in for good measure, and Striped Tit-babblers.
Certainly one of the better trips we had. Not just because of the birds, and we did see a lot of good stuff, but also because of the great company. See you all on Fansipan this spring.......
List of Birds seen:
List of Mammals seen: