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I was sold on the idea of this trip pretty quickly with the phrase “I’ve found a company that have their own hides to see up to four species of Pitta”. Vietnam isn’t the first destination to trip off birder’s tongues, and to be honest, a family trip I had to the tourist sites in January where there really weren’t many birds to be seen wouldn’t in itself have engendered a great deal extra interest in me, either. But if you are a birder who either likes endemics (37 endemics or near endemics), quantity of species (over 900 at the last count for the country), or are like us and want to experience some top species at close quarters for imaging or just pure enjoyment, it certainly fits the bill. The company we had found are Wildtour (www.vietnamwildtour.com) and seem to be the only company fully licensed for tours within Vietnam. They strictly speaking don’t own the hides (“feeding stations” in their terms) at Cat Tien, since they pay a princely sum of $15000 per year to hire them, which gives generally exclusive access to the hides. They also own and maintain 7 feeding stations at Nui San Pass, near Di Linh, which forms a useful mid altitude stop off for some birds which can’t be found at either Cat Tien or the higher altitude of Da Lat.
Within the week we were planning, we opted to stay in a small area of South Vietnam (specifically South Annam, bordered to the West by Cochinchina), flying into and out of Ho Chi Minh airport, with a not too uncomfortable 3 hour drive to Cat Tien, then a longer 6 hour drive back from Da Lat. This gives a good range of species and habitats within a manageable circuit. In outline, the three localities visited are:
This is a lowland site that was established by the Vietnamese government in 1992. It is reached by a ferry crossing over a narrow stretch of the Dong Nai river which borders it, and there are both budget and higher priced accommodations on site. We stayed in the former, which was more than adequate for a couple of birders, as was the food in the restaurant. Be ready for some high temperatures and high humidity here (mid 30’sC and almost 100% respectively at some times during our stay). There is a track which cuts through the accommodation and headquarters area, which goes on for several miles in each direction and gives some good roadside birding. The hides/feeding stations seem very rough and ready, being built of a simple metal frame and having plastic sheets over with rough slits cut in them. There are usually hard plastic seats to sit on. However, there are still locks on these, and they are well tended by the company with the feed of mealworms and corn. Be ready for uncomfortable heat in them, and they also do get leaches at times.
Nui San Pass
Sometimes tagged as Di Linh, this is in fact about 17km away from the town of that name. It is more an area than a location, and consists of hilly forests at an altitude just short of 1000m. The company use a small 6 bedroomed lodging about 10 minutes drive from the feeding stations, but that may be about to be sold. There are 7 feeding stations, and most have either an upward or downward steep climb to get to them, from only a few metres to 100+ metres in length. It is worth the occasional hassle though, since some of the birding in these hides can be excellent (it can also be quiet at times in some of the hides). As opposed to Cat Tien, the temperatures are hot rather than baking, and insect activity seems to lessen also.
This is the higher elevation location, with the highest of the birding sites used at just over 1600m. The town itself is very large and busy, but is a convenient base for the birding. The plus side is that there is more accommodation choice and it is thus of a generally higher standard. The other plus is that there is a greater variety of habitat to choose from, since we encountered anywhere from quiet in forest sites, to busy tourist destinations such as the Tiuclam Monastery and Ta Nang, and roadside birding on new tarmac. Temperatures are cooler yet again, although when we were there it still was T-shirt weather first thing, and could reach hot through the middle of the day (around 30xxxC on the last full day). The slight difference within the national park here is that it is illegal to feed the wildlife, so the hides which were used at the former two sites should not be used. Since this is recognised as an endemic hotspot, it follows that there are many species local only to here, and there also seems to be a move to split even more species from current subspecies (it is worth checking the IOC for the latest updates, though).
Timing and weather
The rainy season is from May to September/October, and this means that some of the trails would be very messy, if passable at all. We chose April since it was still within the dry season (we did have drizzly rain on our first full day), and breeding would either be starting or under way. The entrance airport of choice is Ho Chi Minh, which we reached direct from London Heathrow on a 13 hour flight.
There are good long hours for birding at this time of the year. It gets light at around 5:30am, and dark at around 6pm. We were usually picked up at around that 5:30am time for a 6am birding start. We were either taken back to a restaurant at around 8am for breakfast and for lunch at around 1pm.
Ø The electricity sockets are the 2 pin type as used in Europe
Ø Good quality grips on walking shoes or boots are preferred for some of the routes to the hides
Ø Leach socks are useful for Cat Tien
Ø Food is very good. Vietnamese is usually served, although they also seem keen to turn out omelette when they spot a westerner
Ø The local currency is the Dong, although with the company we used all was provided for. However, any pricing is often quoted in terms of $US, although day to day I’m not sure local businesses would accept this over the Dong
Ø Wifi was provided in Cat Tien and Da Lat, but not when visiting Nui San Pass
Ø While there are some decent South-east Asia field guides available, it really is worth investing in the more recent “Birds of Vietnam” by Lê Quý Minh & Richard Craik (published by Lynx). It has much more accurate distribution maps, and also illustrations of the species forms which occur in Vietnam. Be wary of some of their own splits, although they do often qualify these with the original superspecies.
Cat Tien (Day 1)
After a 12+ hour flight from Heathrow to Ho Chi Minh and then a 4 hour drive following a swift pickup from the airport by Quang, our bird guide, and his driver, we found ourselves at the river ferry crossing that separated the main road from the reserve of Cat Tien. The drive itself was unproductive for birds as predicted, since most of the journey was through busy building lined roads, but there was a stark contrast when we were on the tin lid that passed as the ferry. The forests of the reserve opposite beckoned, with the welcoming committee of a Grey-headed Fish Eagle in the distance. We were shuttled straight to our rooms, with the welcome order that we would be birding in 10 minutes. Suitcases had contents strewn over the beds while we searched for important items (tripod, caps, leach socks, etc) and we met up with Quang outside the room. He explained that the best times of day were the usual morning and evening, so we would do a quick reconnoitre locally to give us a flavour. We hadn’t bargained on how good that flavour would be. A brief and loud singing Rufescent Prinia ushered in a show put on by Lesser Yellownapes, Black-and-red Broadbills and performing Bronzed & Greater Racket-tailed Drongos. As we slowly meandered along the track , we constantly added new birds, with Violet Cuckoo, Racket-tailed Treepie, and various Bulbuls (Streak-eared & Stripe-throated being the most common). Black-naped Oriole we had thought would have migrated by now, but we did expect the Black-hooded Orioles. The only Minivet was a young male Scarlet, with a second Violet Cuckoo for good measure. The return took us toward the restaurant for lunch, where we munched after adding Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike.
The plan was then to rest up until mid afternoon, when we would be heading out again to catch the birdlife waking up again after a siesta. The distractions of the birds we had quickly totted up put paid to that however. Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker was the intro to Large Woodshrike and Indochinese Cuckooshrike. Much better views of the rather loud Rufescent Prinia were had, and an equally loud call led to the first of 3 White-breasted Kingfishers. A Great Iora added to the Common Iora earlier on, and while watching one of a few showy White-rumped Shamas, a Racket-tailed Treepie crossed and landed in the distance from the track. More Black-hooded Orioles were in the company of an Ashy Drongo, and a Common Tailorbird. Now it really was time to drag a hot and sweaty body from the high temperatures before the afternoon sortie began.
We were back out of the accommodation again at 3.30 prompt and met Quang as he exited his. The plans had changed slightly – due to the very high temperatures (mid 30’s C) we would walk half an hour or so around the accommodation blocks first, giving the other location time to cool (relatively) a little. We walked slowly along the track, and it was obvious that there was less evidence of bird life than even an hour or so ago, save for adding Grey-eyed Bulbul to the day’s sightings. As we were starting to stake out a potential show for Silver Pheasant, the truck pulled up and we hopped on board. The rear of the truck was open, and the rush of air from the movement of it was pleasant in the still high temperatures. We were heading straight along the track from the headquarters to an area called Elephant Hills which had been developed into short rides between higher vegetation to encourage Peafowl. We were tasked with looking along these as we drove, which didn’t yield much save for a lone young Sambar at one of the distant waterholes. We then decamped after around 6 miles of driving, where the challenge was now to walk back to Headquarters and look for birds. Luckily, it didn’t take too long for a Green Peafowl to be spotted in one of these said areas, along with 2 separate Red Junglefowl. The walk back was particularly notable for Parakeets, with a good number of busy and noisy Red-breasted being joined by lesser, and just as vocal Blossom-headed. At the drop off point, a Yellow-bellied Prinia was just as musical as the earlier Rufescent Prinias, although not quite as showy. Sooty Bulbuls were a welcome change from a couple of their commoner cousins. A good number of Coucals were mainly seen and occasionally heard, all but one being Lesser. A pair of Common Flamebacks was seen flying away. Overhead, mainly Barn Swallows were interspersed with Pacific, but the Swiftlets with them, although likely to Germain’s, needed to be better seen before a decision as made. The fun came to a premature end when it actually started to rain, so owl watching was knocked on the head, and a ride back the order of the early evening. I assumed the Vietnamese weather wasn’t aware of the fact that this was still the dry season!
Cat Tien (Day 2)
After a surprisingly broken if not fulfilling 9 hours sleep, we were up and ready to go at dawn. Objective this morning was to sit on a hard plastic seat for a couple of hours in a hide to wait for birds – in particular pittas. The sky was looking a little menacing as we trekked the 500m or so along the track then through the forest, but the standard menu of Bronzed Drongo, White-rumped Shama, etc, as well as overflying Greater Flameback, were a welcome wake up call. In addition, as we entered the forest a family trio of Yellow-cheeked Gibbons seemed to be investigating the area of the primate enclosures. The hide was the usual for the region – a simple metal frame with plastic draped over (and holes roughly cut out for viewing). Yet it had locks and chains to prevent improper entry! Mealworms despatched in front of the hide, we spent 2 hours in here waiting patiently. The hoped for pittas didn’t put in an appearance, but there were regular visits from pairs of White-rumped Shama, Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher and Abbott’s Babbler. The latter were feeding an immature. A Northern Smooth-tailed Treeshrew, obviously spending its time on the ground, was scratting around to the rear of the viewing area. Just as impressive was a chorus of singing Gibbons, which continued for half an hour or so mid watch.
Ironically, as we reached the track again with the delightful thoughts of breakfast in mind, a Blue-winged Pitta was calling not too far away. A bit of patience and it eventually flew into our sights. Still can’t get used to having to look into the canopy for pittas, yet that was exactly where it resided, occasionally moving to a more favoured tree. Another, and probably even a third, were also heard calling, responding to the call of the first, not too far away.
Post breakfast until lunch sit was at another hide/feeding station even nearer to the track and to the opposite side of the headquarters accommodation. This was the same format – metal frame with plastic sheet cover, and small plastic chairs inside. Perfect! Quang had been out earlier and scattered some corn on the floor to hopefully entice fowl to the site, and there were a couple of ornamental pools for the birds to drink from. We spent 3 hours in the hide this time (pre lunch that is), and the sun had win the battle with the earlier clouds giving a semi oven effect (although this was tempered by the forest cover overhead). For the leachophobes out there, we also had a couple of the little vermin trying to find some flesh to suck on – we cut off their attack in time thankfully. The sit in was excellent, even better species wise than the one first thing this morning. One of the targets here was Germain’s Peacock-Pheasant, and after a patient wait, one did appear, tentatively to the rear of the bush at first, then in the open. Coincidentally, a pair of Green-legged Partridges chose this time to make their first of a few walk-ins. Bulbuls regularly popped in, with a single Ochraceous between the more frequent Stripe-throated & Streak-eared. White-rumped Shama, Siberian Blue Robin and Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher were regular fare, but a White-throated Kingfisher was seen only a couple of times, with a pair of Pin-striped Tit-babblers there only once. A Blue-winged Pitta was calling nearby, and had been progressively approaching our base, but didn’t actually show itself in the end. To represent the mammals, an Indochinese Ground Squirrel spent some time munching on the provided corn. A short foray out of the rear of the hide found a Common Tailorbird and Black-naped Monarch. Just about leaving time we were treated to a stunning male Ruby-cheeked Sunbird feeding more or less in front of us. This could have been the pre-lunch treat, but was usurped somewhat by a calling Brown Hawk-Owl which was only a small diversion on the way to the restaurant.
The post lunch choice was to relax in our nice air conditioned room, or spend more time in the hot, sweaty, leach infested (well, there were 2 after all!) hide staring at a few bits of corn and a couple of water holes. So after we had gulped the last bits of delicious Vietnamese fish, it was of course straight back to the hide again. It was actually hotter this time than in the direct sun outside, but another couple of very gratifying hours were spent here. Earlier on, bird activity was much less than it had been during the morning, with a few of the earlier usuals occasionally popping in, with the addition of a Racket-tailed Treepie. However, at more or less mid afternoon (14:30ish), the bulbuls and ensemble must have decided this was the time to find the water in the pools in front of us to drink and bathe. Grey-eyed Bulbuls were amongst the more plentiful Stripe-throated & Streak-eared. Oriental Magpie-robin paid its first visit later on, and Emerald Doves became more frequent attendees. At this time, there was always a handful of birds around the water. Then, just as we were looking at the clock and deciding it was almost the deathly hour for birds here, the same Germain’s Peacock-Pheasant as earlier made a return, along with a pair of Green-legged Partridges and even a male Red Junglefowl. This had to be a sign that we had run our luck, and that it was also time to get back and meet for the next stroll out around the forest.
The mid afternoon walk turned into a return-in-the-dark walk. We set off past park headquarters and continued on the track for a short way, and then cut into the forest, walking for some time through quite thick woodland. Temperatures are generally high, and the humidity also high, so this not only makes for some tough going, but there is also some danger of leaches (Quang had a couple on him but we were spared!). The leach socks and long trousers didn’t help temperature regulation, though. The initial part of the walk was along a concrete track, and we did pick up some good birds here. Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrikes were high up: Dark-necked Tailorbirds were low down and close, as well as very active. A Common Flameback flew over then landed. Perhaps topping this was a fiercely rufous White-browed Piculet, which didn’t stay in the same place for long before disappearing. The walk in the forest had to be a patient one, since some of the target species, such as pitta, had to be first heard then enticed with playback song. They were heard infrequently, but a single female Bar-bellied Pitta was seen briefly, after staking out its approximate call location for a short while. Orange-breasted Trogon for some strange reason fell more easily, with one bird picked out (its back to us, unfortunately) fairly early on, and a second briefer bird further along, although it did face us. We eventually left the narrow forest track to meet the initial concrete road, although we walked away from base for a short while. This turned up a couple of Puff-throated Babblers bathing in a roadside puddle. We turned back shortly after fighting off the occasional biting fly, and then searched for owls and nightjars as the darkness drew in. We managed a blank on observations, but did hear a few Great Eared Nightjars which didn’t have the decency to show themselves.
Cat Tien (Day 3)
First port of call for the morning was a feeding station not too distant from the first of the day before. In fact it seemed very close to the track through the park headquarters, although at this time of the morning not much human activity could be detected from it. The 2 hours we spent there were probably the quietest of our hide work so far, with much of the time watching regular Abbott’s Babbler and some warring White-rumped Shamas, with the female taking time off outside of the battles to collect nesting material. Pre-recorded call of Blue-winged Pitta was played, since at least 3 were calling in the area. They weren’t too bothered to approach our hideout, with the closest calls one seen through the gaps in the plastic sheeting above and one landing and hiding in one of the trees to our front. Things sparked up somewhat just before we were leaving when a Purple-naped Sunbird was alongside a couple of Little Spiderhunters. Perhaps one of the highlights again was the chorus of Buff-cheeked Gibbons which seemed to start at bang on 7am. One other mammal of note – a Northern Smooth-tailed Treeshrew fidgeting around to the rear of the feeding area, just behind some of the vegetation.
After breakfast the same pattern as yesterday was repeated. Wander a short way along the main track in the opposite direction to the morning, and veer off right this time to another feeding station with hide. It didn’t seem quite as hot as yesterday morning, and also without the high humidity, which made the stay relatively more comfortable. Corn dispatched to the open area of the hide, we settled on the rather hard plastic seats again to stare out of the slits in the plastic sheeting. The 3 hours this time were quite good, interspersed with times where there was little activity. However, amongst the first birds to appear were a pair of Buff-breasted Babblers, looking for all the world initially like the Abbott’s from earlier. They also seemed to have the grey supercilium, but a closer look found a slimmer, darker bill, and longer tail. As usual, White-rumped Shamas were regular here, and even had a nest under construction in a hollow stump just outside of the hide entrance. Improving on the poorish views of the previous evening, a pair of Puff-throated Babblers became regulars, always sticking close together. In addition to the pair of Indochinese Striped Squirrels, a Northern Smooth-tailed Treeshrew was much more showy than the one seen earlier. Common Tailorbirds were regularly heard and also very active, but one was pinned down later on. Half way through the session, and the hoped for Germain’s Peacock-Pheasant made an appearance, along with a female Red Junglefowl and chick. A few skittish passers through were Racket-tailed Treepie, Green-billed Malkoha, Greater Coucal and White-breasted Kingfisher, with a Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher preferring to stay behind the hide. An Orange-breasted Trogon was calling tantalisingly close by, but stayed out of sight as it moved around. Another occurrence which repeated itself was a very good bird as we left the hide for lunch. After a brief Large Woodshrike, a Rufous Woodpecker was seen in high trees along the main road to headquarters.
Post lunch we again declined the kind thought of a midday siesta, and instead headed back to the same feeding station as this time yesterday. Quang had already popped out to unlock it and put out some corn, so everything was all go when we arrived. We didn’t have to wait until later in the session for things to kick off this time, since today there seemed to be a constant presence of birds to feast on. A trio of White-crested Laughingthrushes followed us in, to join the usual Stripe-throated Bulbuls and White-rumped Shamas. Not long after the Siberian Blue Robin appeared, but strangely this was the only time it was to be seen today. Stars of the show was a pair of Siamese Firebacks which deigned to show a few times. The male seemed more reluctant than the female, who stayed longer each time. The pair of Green-legged Partridges had added one to the clan to be a trio. While Puff-throated Babbler weren’t to be seen here yesterday, they were much more regular today. A Greater Racket-tailed Drongo and Racket-tailed Treepie were occasionals. A couple of the now known species proved a little puzzling at first. 3 Streak-eared Bulbuls had all the credentials apart from the streak ears, although very close inspection saw a hint of this. They were of course juvenile Streak-eared. 3 Babblers were much more difficult. All 3 had the shape and jizz of Buff-breasted, but were all different colours. The darker one had been bathing so looked even darker, but was fairly well nailed on. Another was a more washed out version, while the third looked almost ghostly in comparison, which accentuated the long legs to almost Siberian Blue Robin standards. It turned out that our guess was correct – all Buff-breasted Babblers, with the lighter coloured ones juveniles. Another newbie for the site was Lesser Yellownape, which unfortunately kept towards the back of the clearing.
Plan for the late afternoon and early evening was to walk the main track towards Elephant Hills slowly, birding along the way, and double back for nocturnals. It was good to finally leave the leach socks behind for once – they’re not particularly comfortable in high heat and humidity. The first section of the walk, just beyond the ferry dock, was very productive. Golden-fronted Leafbirds and Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker complimented the more usual fare of Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike, Bronzed Drongo, and Greater Coucal, with Common Flameback thrown in for good measure. Once we hit the denser forest, the birding became more difficult. We walked a few miles there and a few miles back, and what would have been a bit of a fruitless effort was partly saved by half decent views of one of 4 calling Blue-winged Pittas, a couple of Ochraceous Bulbuls, and the almost constant curtain calls of White-rumped Shamas. As dusk fell, various owl and nightjar calls were played, mainly without success, but the walk was well and truly elevated by not one but two Great-eared Nightjars flying around above us.
Cat Tien (Day 4)
There had been reports from one of the other guides that both Blue-winged & Bar-bellied Pittas had been seen at the first hide we visited on the first day, so it was obvious where we were going to head this morning. Quang had forgotten his keys as we approached the hide, so his “run” back to get them gave us time to catch up on Black-headed Bulbul and a brief Blue-winged Pitta. Back in the familiar surroundings of the plastic seats and roughly cut slits in the black plastic hides, we settled back for a wait. Which is why, after an immediate appearance of a family of 4 Abbott’s Babblers, the slow approach of a Blue-rumped Pitta was a massive surprise. Quang had apparently been playing all 3 pitta calls in rotation, but there hadn’t been a sniff of this species so far. It and a female continued to put in sporadic cameos throughout our vigil, usually staying to the rear in the shade, but the male occasionally came out for the mealworms. On cameos, a couple of Wild Boars approached the feeding area, but were startled before they came out into the open. During the watch, the usual White-rumped Shamas and Abbott’s Babblers were constant, but a Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher was a late entrant to the scene. As we packed up again to go for breakfast, the Buff-cheeked Gibbons stepped up the morning chorus, and were then spotted hanging around the primate enclosures – no doubt taunting the captives within! Bizarrely, each departure from a hide had given us a good bird. This morning was no different. A Collared Falconet flew over the headquarters buildings, and landed on a bare branch, then to be joined briefly by a second.
Post breakfast walk as almost a fill in before leaving. We walked for around half an hour in the Elephant Hills direction, but all was very quiet until we reached the turning point. Then more Blue-winged Pittas called, with one almost flying between us to the other side of the track. On the return, a Greater Racket-tailed Drongo preceded a mini eruption in birds – 2 Great Ioras and an active Dark-necked Tailorbird, with backdrop of more White-rumped Shamas and Streak-eared Bulbuls. As we neared the room to collect the luggage, both of the Black-and-red Broadbills were tending to their nest building duties.
Nui San Pass
And so it was to our second birding destination. A 3 hour drive and good lunch on the way, passing through the decent sized city that is Di Linh, found us at a much greater altitude than of the last few days (approximately 900 metres here). This meant that there was a noticeable drop in the temperatures, from very hot to just hot, and a resultant reduction in the chances of leaches in the forest. The landscape here is predictably mountainous, with a lot of forest near to our designated birding area, much of which has been cultivated on the route to there (quite a few tea plantations were evident). The forest is actually quite thick, and whilst harbouring a very good range of birds, the company here has cut rough trails through at certain spots, and then made small clearings for feeding stations with blinds (the concept of a hide is a little off the mark for these!).
For most of the afternoon, we went to three of these and tried our luck – the variety of species (if any) tends to vary each day and at each hide, so that the expected birds don’t always play ball. This was certainly true of the first one we went to. After gently moving on a trio of hunters (they flout the law presumably with bribes to catch and sell birds, orchids, felled trees, and anything else they can sell), we parked the car on a roadside gravel pull in and ascended a tricky but short dirt track to a blind which itself was on a slope. Mealworms and bird recordings in place, we called time after only 20 minutes or so when it was obvious nothing was playing ball. A short hop in the car found another, whose track descended about 100 metres to a much more substantial area, which had a better feel to it (the sighting of a Pale-legged Leaf-warbler as we parked helped here). We again waited about 20 minutes (at the same time munching on a superb jackfruit) before Quang decided this was also too quiet. The pair of Orange-headed Thrushes and Siberian Blue Robin that did deign to show might have thought otherwise. Then on to the third feeding station, where another member of the tour company was already waiting. Apparently this chap has the job of keeping all the 7 feeding stations stocked up. He doesn’t even watch the birds, but does kip in the area during the heat of the afternoon.
This last feeding station was the absolute opposite of the first two. Quang had stated earlier that all died down after 4pm which is when we would be leaving. Yet good birds were still popping in by 5:20pm. No sooner had the mealworms been replenished when the first of a pair of Buff-breasted Babblers muscled in on the grub (!!!). These birds had more obvious streaking on the breast than the plainer chested ones at Cat Tien. Shortly after, a female Siberian Thrush paid its one and only visit. Then the rush started. In a short space of time, female Blue-throated Blue Flycatcher, and then pairs of Black-throated Laughingthrush and White-browed Scimitar Babbler called in. All 3 species would be regular returnees before we left. A couple of Orange-headed Thrushes were also regular, and appeared to be of different subspecies, one with plain face, the other having two shadowy vertical dark stripes. There was a bit of a lull in new species, and then a male White-throated Rock Thrush preceded a stunning Indonesian Green Magpie. This was the last new species to enter the dining area, but there was still time left for the male Blue-throated Blue Flycatcher to step in.
There wasn’t much time left in the day after such an excellent sit in at the feeding station, so we ambled down the gradient of the mountain road to pick up any roadside birds, then to be picked up by the driver and taken to the accommodation. Straight away, a fairly elusive Indochinese Barbet was picked out of the canopy before it flew to the opposite side of the road not to be seen again. One had been calling not too far from the feeding area so it was good to catch up. Not much more of note happened bar a trio of Black-crested Bulbuls and a pair of overflying Vinous-breasted Starlings.
Nui San Pass (Day 5)
First feeding station of the morning was the same as the second one we visited yesterday. We arrived reasonably early in a wonderfully cool temperature hoping for Blue Pitta. During the one hour stay, we certainly heard a couple calling, but they didn’t seem interested in the delicious banquet of mealworms we had provided. However, any visit can’t be bad when a Siberian Blue Robin puts in an appearance, and this one kept coming back. A Northern Treeshrew provided the mammalian interest. The only other visitors were singing Blue-throated Blue Robin and late Orange-headed Thrush. We then broke off for breakfast, where Mountain Imperial Pigeon was gazing down from a high tree, and very brief Blue Whistling Thrush flew from the stream alongside. Behind the restaurant, a Streaked Spiderhunter was feeding from bush to bush.
A new feeding station to us beckoned, this one a slightly different construction to the previous ones. We descended quite a long hill through the forest, passing the good omen of a couple of Long-tailed Broadbills on the way down, to find a closed off square hide with open top. This meant we not only had decent views of the feeding area, but could also see the forest above ground level around us. This was to be the key to the enjoyment of this site. We had come for Blue Pitta and possible Silver Pheasant. The latter showed no signs and the former only a couple of birds calling sporadically. However, the accompanying avian life in the surrounding trees during our stay was superb and almost constant. After the usual female Siberian Blue Robin had put in an appearance, Puff-throated Bulbuls gave tantalisingly brief views. Mountain Fulvetta and White-throated Fantails busily fed at eye level around us, but White-bellied Erpornis kept to the rear of the area. The higher trees above were very productive, giving us Speckled Piculet, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch and Indochinese Barbet, while a gap through the trees seemed popular for Blue-winged Leafbird, Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo, Indochinese Cuckooshrike, and Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike. Buff-breasted Babbler put in a late appearance to the feeding area, and we managed to pin down one of two Yellow-bellied Warblers as we left.
The next feeding station was a bit of a disappointment in itself. Waiting for a hoped for Orange-breasted Laughingthrush, all we turned up was another female Siberian Blue Robin. Quang went to check another station while we waited, but was away for some time while nothing was showing, so we decided to go back down to the road to see what we could pick out. This was a great move, since it only took a couple of minutes to spot a pair of Besra over the tops of the hills. Another larger raptor was flying from us not showing any useful features, but another circled above the lower hills giving good flight views. The closer of the two turned out to be Rufous-bellied Eagle, and the other may have been the same species, but views were very poor. Also here while waiting were Black-crested Bulbul, Ashy Drongo and Grey-eyed Bulbul.
When Quang had returned, he asked if we wanted to return to the first hide for the outside possibility of Blue Pitta, or walk along the forest edge to see what we could find. He had reckoned that Blue Pitta was only really a possible during early morning, but if there was to be any chance . . . . ! So of course we opted for the long shot. And what a decision. After the prerequisite Siberian Blue Robin and Orange-headed Thrush, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I turned to look to my right and a female Blue Pitta was staring back at me. It hopped straight off, then less than a minute later was feeding in front of us. Time now was about 11:30. It didn’t take much time for the male to appear as well. The latter was the shyer of the two, with the female showing many times over the next half an hour or so. This was the high excitement but not the end of the good birds. Midday came and went as we notched up very active Grey-throated Babbler in the background, Puff-throated Bulbul perching briefly over the feeding area, and a pair of White-browed Scimitar Babblers feeding an immature which was parked up to the rear of the opening. Last and by no means least, a couple of White-cheeked Laughingthrushes put in a first appearance, although they preferred also to stay to the rear of the feeding area, generally behind the foliage. After this we tried our luck on the way out to pin down a pair of Long-tailed Broadbills which had a nest, but for some reason they didn’t turn out.
Da Lat Waterfall Pine Forest
A two hour drive and another few hundred metres in altitude – Da Lat plateau is apparently around 1500 metres high – and we were on the outskirts of the busy and tourist infested city of the same name. We headed straight for the trap that is the waterfalls, but naturally didn’t pay the £10 to enter the popular bit with the throng. We headed instead up a small hill and into the small tract of pine woodland, which is purportedly the only one in this part of Vietnam. We had expected an end of the day fill in with a few decent birds, but this proved to be yet another excellent session. As soon as we passed the cafe at the top, we were into the woodland proper, which was quiet for people but not for the birds. In fact, as soon as we stepped out of the car in the car park, Black Bulbuls were flying between the trees, and just at the corner of the tarmac, a viewpoint down found a pair of very confiding Grey Bushchats. Hoopoes seemed to be constantly flying to and fro, but this was likely to be the same pair tending a nest, since they seemed to be carrying food. Spotted Doves preceded an elusive Hill Prinia, but there then followed a more showy cast including Chestnut-vented Nuthatch, Green-backed Tit, and Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker. A Eurasian Jay in a nearby group of trees was quite different from those in Europe having a white face. A skittish Burmese Shrike preceded some time trying to catch up with and have a good look at a pair of Slender-billed Orioles, whose call was very much different from the species’ already seen. After trying to pin down a briefly calling Oriental Scops Owl without success, walking a bit further found a collection of Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrikes, White-throated Fantail, and Streaked Spiderhunter. We then descended a little towards a valley containing a couple of small pools (with Chinese Pond-heron flying out), and spent yet more time pinning down a singing Mountain Tailorbird. It was happier keeping itself under the denser vegetation cover, until eventually yet briefly coming out into the open. As we neared the end of the walk we added another Burmese Shike, with yet another near to the cafe (along with a couple of Scaly-breasted Munias). Last action was yet another Burmese Shrike, looking like it had a bad wing but could still just about fly, and then an Ashy Drongo hammering a large insect to bits before devouring it.
Bidoup National Park (Day 6)
It took at least half an hour to drive to the locations in the national park where we were to do our birding. Apparently, there is no feeding of the birds allowed in here, and so any setting up of feeding stations would be illegal. So we spent 6 hours of the morning at 2 good viewing areas waiting for any birds to come. Within a short time, a pair of Large Niltavas appeared, and it was apparent that they had a family nearby judging by the amount of worms that were taken. A pair of Snowy-browed Flycatchers followed shortly afterwards, although they weren’t quite as showy as the Niltavas. Other birds were much more skittish and didn’t use the viewpoint. Mountain Fulvetta stuck to the higher branches, whereas a White-tailed Robin would not come very far out of cover. Only other bird was a White-throated Fantail overhead, but there was no sign of any hoped for laughingthrushes.
We spent much more time at the second viewing point – just over 4 hours. This had possibly the best birding so far, not through numbers of species or quantity of birds, but the quality of the main 3 species which turned out here. A trio of Collared Laughingthrushes were relative latecomers to the show, but took central stage when they were present. Best of all for us was the almost constant performance put on by a pair of Grey-bellied Tesias and a Pygmy Cupwing. Both were difficult to pin down for any length of time to begin with, but the Tesias in particular eventually showed well. One even did a slow circuit behind where we were hidden, calling all the time, once less than a metre from where we sat. For some reason, they didn’t tolerate the presence of the laughingthrushes, scolding much of the time they were there. The Cupwing was very brief to start with, darting in for food, but gave better views with time. White-tailed Robin and Snowy-browed Flycatcher were much more obliging here, as was a single Large Niltava male. On response to playing a call, a female Mrs Gould’s Sunbird was going ballistic in front of us, and a Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher almost as much to the side.
After a quick lunch of egg in noodles, we headed for the third viewing area to again try to see some forest birds. This was down a tricky steep decline through the forest, and wouldn’t have been a joke in wet weather. We stayed here for only about an hour since it seemed obvious that there was going to be very little activity, save for a skittish White-tailed Robin and difficult to see Grey-throated Robin. However, on the drive there we did disturb an Eastern Jungle Crow from the road, and had both Eurasian Jay and Black-collared Starling over the road on the way back to Da Lat.
Tiuclam Monastery, Da Lat
So a change of tack and scenery was called for. We crossed a lot of the bustle of the city to pull into the car park for this religious Buddhist site. Naturally there were people everywhere, taking selfies by the shedload and generally getting in the way. A far cry from the peace of the forest earlier. There was a target in mind though. This is supposed to be a good location for Vietnamese Greenfinch, since they tend to seek shelter with the monks in the restricted access part of the monastery. We ignored the gawping of the passers by, keeping eyes peeled on the tops of the trees to stand for a while just next to where the birds could be expected. First blood was the surprise of only the first Common Myna of the trip, as well as Green-backed Tits and Chestnut-vented Nuthatches in the pines to the front of us. The wait was in vain for the finches, but did turn up a very smart Black-headed Sibia just before we were due to leave.
Road above Tuyen Lam Resort
Yet another change of tactic for the last outing of the day, and this turned out to be a major bonus. We decamped from the car just around the corner from the resort gates, and walked slowly up the hill and along, birding the forest which was mainly to our left on the way. The sun was also shining against this side of the road, which may even have urged the birds on to a better performance. The road itself was also generally fairly quiet, with only a few scooters and vehicles passing by. The initial avian interest was much of what we had seen already in the form of Black-crested Bulbuls, the first of a few Grey Bushchats, and a Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike. As we neared the corner, looking above us in the trees on the opposite side of the road were a few active Black-throated Bushtits. This was the start of a good series of birds in a very short distance. Before we crept on, however, we doubled back a little for a few Vietnamese Greenfinches in a much smaller tree which were much less active, just next to the opposite side of the road. Venturing further up, but only for 50 metres or so, the road bent to the right, and the nearby forest above the elbow of the bend was electric for variety of birds in the strong sunshine. It was kicked off by a Blue-winged Minla flying in, so we set down backpacks and rested against the crash barrier while staring up. First in was a female Mrs Gould’s Sunbird, not to be outdone some time later by a stunning male. Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo on a bare branch higher up was in the company of Eastern Crowned Warbler, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher, and a pair of Indonesian Barbets which were visiting a nest hole. We had to crane our necks downwards from this to watch the usually hidden pair of Hill Prinias at the side of the road. Continuing the higher vigil were the delights of Black-throated Sunbird and Chestnut-capped Warbler, as well as a couple of other small warblers which weren’t seen well enough for identification.
We tore ourselves away from the feast to amble further along the road, where the entrance structure to a spa resort sported its very own Cambodian Striped Squirrel. The pines to the left of the descent from here were to be the last of the day’s birding and were just as good as earlier. Ashy Drongo started the balled rolling, with a Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker tending a hole in a tree. A couple of White-cheeked Laughingthrushes was moving between low bushes, and a trio of Black-headed Sibias did likewise further down. Last and by no means least, a Vietnamese Cutia had been heard some way into the forest, but with patience and a bit of persuasion it was drawn a lot closer to us. This was at first in the expected high canopy, but for some strange reason it flew down to a much lower tree opposite us giving crippling views. Great way to end the day.
Ta Nung Valley (Day 7)
When we first arrived at the site, it looked like a nice peaceful walk down a track taking in birdlife in the trees surrounding. And at first this was very much the case, but as the morning went on, it was obvious it was a bit of playground for the selfie obsessed posers that the world seems to have generated. Yet this also the best place in Da Lat for Grey-crowned Crocias, as well as a host of other species which we picked up during the morning. The track descends through fairly open areas to the small lakes below, which are surrounded by good forest as well as many playthings for the tourists. A corner of the forest just above 3 small huts was particularly productive, even though many of the birds required some neck craning to see. The play kicked off with Flavescent Bulbul and brief Indochinese Barbet, after which we came across a bushful of very active Mrs Gould’s Sunbirds, which we spent some frustrating time trying to photograph. After finally succeeding, we pinned down the first of 2 Grey-crowned Crocias. Unfortunately, they favour the canopy but decent views were had if a little distant.
As we walked further down to the corner of the forest at the base of the track, we just kept on turning up many species, pick of which were the second Crocias, Fire-breasted Flowerpecker, and a huge Red-vented Barbet directly over us. Hill Prinias were much more obliging today, although the group of Verditer Flycatchers feeding were a little more distant. We then walked over to the corner of the lake, to gaze up at calling Dalat Shrike-babbler. Lying on our backs was the key to best views here, and a Necklaced Barbet in the same tree gave brief views before flying into cover. Another Red-vented Barbet flew into a bare tree next to this, which also hosted a trio of Asian Fairy Bluebirds. Back from the lake and in the shade of a tree hosting an ice cream van, as well as horrific Asian music blaring out of tinny speakers, a Barred Cuckoo Dove was spotted nearby, and stayed feeding on the same berries for some time. By this time, Black-headed Sibias seemed to have gained the energy to move about, and some were singing for the first time last in the morning. Ascending the track again to the car, it was noticeable that the sunbirds that were so active had now vacated the nectar bushes, in their place leaving the scooter youth to take their self portraits.
Mixed pine and broadleaf forest, Da Lat
This location is somewhere Quang reckons he has discovered only recently, and so it doesn’t have a name as such. It consists of a rough and narrow at times concrete track, which undulates in the lower hills above Da Lat through either pine or broadleaf forest. The initial ten minutes or so were spent looking at a dirt path through some pine forest, but apart from Mountain Bulbul when we returned it was very quiet. So we re-joined the concrete track and tried our luck at birding the forest margins alongside it. This kicked off in short time with a male Mrs Gould’s Sunbird, but the walk was enlivened as we reached a bend and dip in the track to find a small party of Black-headed Parrotbills. They were generally quite elusive, but occasionally stopped to allow us a good gander. Also at this point were a few Blue-winged Minlas and a White-cheeked Laughingthrush. We added some of the more common species as we wended our way, including Ashy Drongo, Flavescent Bulbul and Verditer Flycatcher. When we came to a crossroads overlooking the valley below, the concrete fizzled out to a rough track with a crossroads, dutifully overseen by a pair of Black Bulbuls. Quang was obviously looking more closely at this area, and I have no doubt this was the specific locale he was looking for. We combed the area as he played the call of one bird in particular, and we even waded through some of the thicker vegetation off track for a search. It obviously wasn’t the Grey Bushchat or trio of Chestnut-vented Nuthatches he was craving for, or the House Swifts overhead. We crossed over to a dirt path through the grass again searching, until we had a response. A bit of a wait and more responses in kind, then we were eventually looking at a singing Dalat Bush Warbler. The IOC still have this as a subspecies of Russet Bush Warbler, and even the more recent splits (non IOC) have kept this as Annam Bush Warbler, which has a range across South to North Annam. However, he was chuffed to bits that we had seen the last of his Da Lat endemics, so this last species of the day ended very much on a good note.
Khu Du Lich resort (Day 8)
There was apparently a resort of the above name 800m into the forest, but we conducted our birding on the forest edge of the main road which led to this and also the dirt tracks through the forest itself. The forest edge was mainly broadleaf, which quickly became pine as we entered the tracks and then back to broadleaf again as we ventured further. Sun was shining strongly again on our last morning, and the session was so good that it can’t be classed as a last morning fill in. There were some new birds for the trip, but the highlights were the stunning views of some species we had already seen but this time in real close up. The first bird of the day, Black-headed Parrotbill, exemplified this, showing for longer and in better light than the previous evening. Indochinese Barbet was arguably even more impressive, with crippling views in the strong early morning light. After a Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo, a Long-tailed Broadbill was seen briefly within the vegetation, but a male and trio of female Scarlet Minivets almost burned with colour at the top of a tree. Just after sorting out the yellowish cast to the breast of a Kloss’s Warbler, a pair of Speckled Piculets were pinned down at the top of one of the pines, and a couple of Vietnamese Greenfinch likewise in the opposite direction.Turning into the forest and on to the rough dirt track, a couple of Chestnut-vented Nuthatches fiddled around at the top of one of the pines. A short distance along the track, a tricky calling Blyth’s Leaf Warbler preceded a group of very active Red-billed Scimitar Babblers, whose bright red bill lived up to the name. Mrs Gould’s Sunbird and flythrough Maroon Oriole came just before an excellent finale in a semi clearing. Overhead and not too distant this time, a male Dalat Shrike Babbler gave stunning if not too elongated views. A female 10 minutes later tearing a butterfly to bits would pose for longer. Then a pair of Vietnamese Cutia were picked out directly overhead, and stayed for some time being only 10 metres or so above us. On the other side of the track, a Necklaced Barbet made up for my brief and incomplete views the day before, this time spending some time on open branches. Great finish to the trip birding, and finally completed on the walk back by perched Maroon Oriole this time and our last Large Niltava.