On our last day at Cat Tien we took a boat trip along the Dong Nai River which forms a boundary on two sides of the Park. Not scheduled but I had a feeling it would be worthwhile and arranged it privately. The River is beautiful, peaceful and quite natural, I felt a sense of calm and well-being here, a small part of this Earth unspoilt by the human virus.
This was a great way to watch birds. Pied Kingfishers were plying their trade from the overhanging branches. They were matched in numbers by White Collared kingfishers, similar in size but more colourful. It was a sign of a healthy river to see so many fishermen, mostly avian but a few local human ones too.
The Stork Billed Kingfisher is the largest of all in SE Asia. Around 40+cm in length it is am imposing sight as it plunges into the water. The huge bill is ideal for scooping up quite sizeable fish, probably bigger than other kingfisher species can manage, giving it a natural advantage.
Kingfishers were not the only birds on display. The Blue Bearded Bee-eater is quite different from its Spanish counterpart or the local Chestnut Headed variant. Much stockier in shape with a shaggy blue beard and streaked yellow undersides it is a fine sight, particularly when perched in such a colourful tree.
The Darter is a close relative of its North American cousin the Anhinga, which we encountered in the Everglades. These are highly specialised fishermen with extremely long flexible necks. In the water they swim with body submerged and only the neck and head with spear-like bill visible above the surface, somewhat like images I have seen of the mythical Loch Ness monster. They are however extremely powerful in flight and can soar to great heights to ride the thermals. An impressive bird indeed.
Here´s a familiar face for a change. The Grey Heron is not uncommon out here, nor is the Purple Heron. In fact there are at least twelve species of Heron and we were fortunate enough to see seven of them, including the rare Malayan Night Heron.
This is a Little Heron, not one we see in Europe but fairly common here in SE Asia. They are mainly seen around the coast so this one is an exception by the Dong Nai River, it is a long way to the sea from here.
Another look at the Pied Kingfisher, quite a striking bird to see flying across the river and well worth a second look. As is the Collared Kingfisher, this time with a slightly better view of those dazzling pale blue feathers, quite a different shade of blue from the Common Kingfisher that we all know in Europe.
This was an opportune shot. Peering through the bushes I spotted this Common Iora with a large termite in its beak Click! death of a termite, on record.
Other birds seen this morning include a Woolly-necked Stork, Plain Backed Sparrows, Javan & Chinese Pond Herons, Dark Necked Tailorbird, Ashy Headed Bulbul and a nice Black Hooded Oriole. I also snapped a Cambodian Squirrel, these small striped squirrels are very common but are worth a look.
Cat Tien Birding had been an amazing experience. It had whetted my appetite for more, particularly forest birds so we tried to go to another well know birding location in South Vietnam, Da-Lat. This is famous for its cooler climate, being in a mountainous area, and for its natural beauty, plenty of pristine forest ideal for birding. Unfortunately our trip co-incided with National Holidays on April 30/May 1st and all accommodation was fully booked, as were flights from Saigon. So we decided not to waste any more time & headed back to Bangkok to try the National Parks in that region of Thailand.
Cat Tien, the Forest
Cat Tien is an amazing National Park a few hours drive from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). It is 72,000 hectares of lowland tropical rainforest and an area of incredible biodiversity. The air here is filled with butterflies, over 450 species, many of them rare, so many that in places they carpet the trails. Fauna in the park includes 326 bird species, 100 types of mammal, 79 types of reptile, 41 amphibian species, plus an incredible array of insects. In the early 1990s, a rare group of Javan rhinoceros was discovered in the park, but conservationists now believe their number may have plummeted to just one or two ageing adults. Leopards are also believed to roam here. Rare birds in the park include the orange-necked partridge, green peafowl and Siamese Fireback plus three species of pitta. There is also a healthy population of monkeys. We spent three full days here with our trusty guide Mr. Duyen, organised by "Vietnam Birding", an excellent company based in Saigon run by British expat Richard Craik.
Trekking the forest trails can be exhilarating. It is never silent, the whooping of Gibbons swinging through the canopy overhead, the "circular saw" like drone of cicadas and the loud calls of forest birds all make it very atmospheric. I soon learned that photography in these dim light conditions was extremely difficult, my little 400mm f5.6 is ok in the bright light of Spain, but here in the jungle is is hopelessly inadequate. Nevertheless I ramped up the ISO and opened the aperture fully and did my best. It is very exciting to spot exotic forest birds like this Orange Breasted Trogon, I was lucky to get a shot of this magnificent species through very dense foilage.
Birds are very difficult to spot along the trails, the foilage is thick, the light poor and our eyes are not atuned to these conditions. Our guide used calls to attract birds like this little Puff Throated Babbler who came to investigate. We heard such exotic and rare species as Germaine´s Peacock Pheasant, Orange Necked Partridge, Barred and Blue-winged Pittas, but seeing them was a different matter, they know how to stay safely out of sight.
It is in forest clearings and around the edges of the jungle that most birds can be seen. It also provides better light for photography. After a two hour trek in dense forest we came to an open area with a lake, known locally as "Crocodile Lake" for obvious reasons. Here we came across a nesting pair of Black and Red Broadbills, a very beautiful bird and a delight to watch building their nest on a branch overhanging the river.
Broadbills are a particularly attractive bird family and we were to have many more encounters with them later, but I will never forget this exciting first sighting.
Birding around the lake was superb. Bronze Winged Jacana, Lesser Whistling Duck, Asian Golden Weaver, White Rumped Munia, Racket Tailed Treepie and a very rare Green Peafowl were all observed, though mostly from a distance. I did photograph all of them but most are just distant record shots. I have included this Green Peafowl however for its rarity value, and later that afternoon we did see Blue Winged Pitta, brief flashes of saphire blue as a pair flew around us from tree to tree. (This shot is from a later encounter in Thailand).
Later that day, on the way back to our forest cabin, we spotted many other species from the road. These included Imperial Green Pigeon, Bronzed Drongo, our first Hornbill (Oriental Pied Hornbill), Blue Eared Barbet and Crested Serpent Eagle.
The shot below is one of a series of a mother Stripe Throated Bulbul with her fledged chick. It is a nice series which shows the bond between a mother and her offspring, I have only space to show one shot here however.
Barbets are interesting and photogenic birds with large faces and some bright colours. We saw Green Eared Barbets quite frequently which always showed well in photos. I was not so lucky with the Blue Eared and Moustached Barbets which we also saw but the photos are not great.
The White Rumped Sharma is an exotic looking bird but is quite easy to see. It is fairly common in the forest and is not so shy as most other forest species. This one flew onto a roadside power cable and posed nicely for a full frame shot. It was quite late in the day by this time and the light was not too good, but it still makes a striking image with its orange breast and long black and white tail.
Many forest bird photos are for the record, archive shots of exciting birds that are lifers for us but not good images. Sometimes the bird is still worth posting for the memories they bring back. For example the following images recall the early morning that Duyen took us onto a forest trail exactly below the path of a family of whooping Gibbons on the move. It was amazing to watch them swinging from branch to vine with incredible speed and grace. Suddenly over the cacophany of the Gibbons we heard the strange calls of a flock of White Crested Laughingthrush, a distinctive sound that gives the species its name. I managed a quick shot of one and at the same time I spotted this Lesser Cuckoo through a gap in the branches & fired off a quick snap of that as well. Two lifers in quick succession, one of those birding moments that stand out..
Between Thailand and Vietnam we stopped off in Cambodia for four days, in Siem Reap to be precise which is the location of Angkor Wat and various other famous ancient KhmerTemples. This is a birding/wildlife blog but this short travel section is worth posting.
I quote from an official Cambodian scource - Angkor Wat, in its beauty and state of preservation, is unrivaled. Its mightiness and magnificence bespeak a pomp and a luxury surpassing that of a Pharaoh or a Shah Jahan, an impressiveness greater than that of the Pyramids, an artistic distinctiveness as fine as that of the Taj Mahal.
Now I am the World´s worst tourist. Traipsing around ancient buildings or monuments with hoardes of sightseers sends palapable waves of boredom through my entire being, worse than watching paint dry!
Nevertheless I did my duty and made an obligatory visit. Above is a shot of Elena crossing the entrance causeway towards the Temple. I lasted twenty minutes before beating a hasty retreat, taking no further pictures of any buildings.
I did however see this lovely Cambodian family sitting on some steps, all looking as enthralled as I was (not). Three generations of women on the right, and a father and son on the left. With their permission I took a few shots. (Much more interesting than some old stone buildings).
What I recall most about Cambodia is the people. The legacy of the Khmer Rouge genocide and Pol Pot´s Killing Fields hangs over them like a shroud, casting a shadow across their otherwise quite expressionless features. Quite unlike the Thais, or even the Vietnamese who are more animated and quick to smile.
I do not remember Cambodia for its birds, there weren´t any! After traveling around in the countryside for a while Elena and I soon noticed that there were no birds around, nor any of the usual dogs or cats, nothing living at all except people. They are quite poor so anything & everything that moves gets eaten, it all ends up in the pot!
We also noted truckloads of logs in a constant stream heading towards the Town. People slash and burn the forest to grow crops, but the exposed soil is thin and of poor quality so next year more forest is slashed and burned, and so the whole depressing scenario is repeated et al. Seventy percent of Earth’s land animals and plants live in forests, but the world’s rain forests could completely vanish in a hundred years at the current rate of deforestation.A global catastrophe. Perhaps that is why I did enjoy seeing the jungle at least reclaiming the site of one temple, at Beng Melea.
Most tourists don´t bother to take a trip out here to Beng Melea so we had it virtually to ourselves. It is an amazing sight to see large stone buildings being swallowed up by huge trees. The roots invade the structure & gradually break it apart. The photo below gives some idea of the size of some of the trees.
We took a boat ride out to a floating village on the Great Lake, Tonle Sap. This lake and river system is the largest in SE Asia. In the dry season it provides most of the flow of water for the mighty Mekong river, but during the rains this flow reverses and huge flood plains are filled, created perfect spawning grounds for fish. Entire fishing communities live in floating villages on the lake.
Everything the villagers need is out here on rafts, housing, schools, shops and market. We visited an "orphanage". We were told it was sadly needed as severe storms are now causing more fishermen to lose their lives. The storms were supposedly due a combination of deforestation and global warming.
There were birds on the lake, whiskered and black terns, barn swallows and some gulls. But it was the people that caught my eye again and we only had a pocket camera with us. Here is a young Cambodian boy whose old face belies his young age. I suspect that he will have a full working day in the fishing business. Average per capita income around the lake is about 50 cents a day. Not much chance then of an education and other opportunities, he is needed to help the family survive.
The girl below was doing voluntary work, washing up in lake water! at the village "orphanage". At least we were told it was an orphanage, I am sceptical because I saw what looked like parents hovering around, and I think it may have just been the primary school.
The "orphans" looked well fed and cared for. It was a regular stop for the tourist boats, many of whom were persuaded to purchase sacks of rice or vegetables from the village store for the children. I suspect it was quite a lucrative business that helped support the entire community. The locals were clever at tugging tourist heartstrings.
Cambodia had been an interesting experience. We did not visit the Killing Fields Museum in Siem Reap. Too depressing for my liking. But I did read the recent history of this fascinating Country. It is as incredible as anything I ever heard, it would be unbelievable if the hard evidence wasn´t there for posterity. No manic depressive ghoul could invent anything as awful as what befell Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.
As a footnote to our visit, Cambodia is home to a number of critically endangered bird species, including Giant and White Shouldered Ibis, White-Rumped, Slender-Billed and Red-Headed Vultures. There are protected areas and reserves in the Country including one within easy reach of Siem Reap at Prek Toal, but it was too dry to visit when we were there. However I would like to return one day and find some of those rare and endangered birds before they disappear completely.
From the island of Koh Lanta we sadly said goodbye to Lu, Arlo & Wade & moved on by van & ferry to the mainland. Krabi is a pleasant small town on the East side of the Thai/Malasian Peninsula. On my 67th birthday and our fourth wedding anniversary we took a boat trip on the River looking for kingfishers along the banks and in the mangroves. Sure enough Collared Kingfishers were fairly numerous, strangely only in Town? once we got away from human habitation they were not around. Their fiercely bright blue back seems to glow with its own light so they were easy to spot.
Our Boatman must have been used to birders. He had hawk eyes and spotted birds long before we did. He knew exactly how to get close, cutting the engine at the appropriate time so as not to startle the bird. This Brown Winged Kingfisher for example stayed-put long enough for me to get the shot. Perfect! A good tip was in order that day.
Apart from the kingfishers there was not much else to see however, although the mangroves were interesting. A Common Sandpiper or two was the only other bird of note.
Afterwards I took a few pictures of birds around our hotel. The Scaly Breasted Munia is a common bird of the region, but it was new to us and worthy of inclusion.
This one is a Yellow-Vented Bulbul, another common bird but new to us and so worthy of our attention.
I had read about a National Park not far from Krabi called Khao Noi Chu Chi, famed for being the last place one could potentially see Gurney´s Pitta, a beautiful bird threatened with extinction.
This is an adult male Gurney's Pitta (Pitta gurneyi), an endangered species that was believed to be extinct until several pairs were rediscovered in 1986. At that time, it was thought to be the rarest bird species on earth. Currently, it is estimated that there are perhaps 10 pairs of Gurney's pittas at Khao Nor Chuchi in Thailand (other Thai populations are probably extinct). Fortunately, another, larger, population was recently discovered in southern Tenasserim, Myanmar/Burma. Deforestation will no doubt see them off before too long though.
Quoting Nick Upton of Thaibirding.com, a respected authority on Thai birds;-
For those attempting to find Gurney's Pitta at Khao Nor Chu Chi, the species is most detectable between mid-March and mid-June, with a peak of calling activity around mid-April. The birding logbooks usually have the locations of the latest sightings, with gulleys along the first few hundred metres of U-trail being the most regular place, although there are places along B-trail where they can be found.
Well I decided we would give it a try. We hired a car, drove to Khao Nor Chu Chi, found and walked the U and B trails, with some difficulty as they are hard to find and not well maintained so are almost invisible in places. Anyway, not only did we not see Gurney´s Pitta, we saw very little of anything except a few spent shotgun cartridges. My first lesson in forest birding! You need a guide! and most birds are seen on the fringes, those in deep forest are rarely visible to the uninitiated observer. The Reserve area is quite beautiful with waterfalls and Emerald Pools, a draw for lots of tourists. Not what we came for though.
Here´s one I did spot, a Scarlet Backed Flowerpecker. A nice little bird and very pleasing to photograph, but it´s not a Pitta, and definitely not a Gurney´s Pitta. I decided that from now on in the forest I would use a guide, someone with the necessary local knowledge and birding expertise to find and see the birds.
Since my daughter Louise gave birth to my first grandchild "Arlo Thomas" in February, Elena and I decided to visit and make his acquaintance on the beautiful island of Koh Lanta in Southern Thailand. Louise and Wade work here as diving instructors. It is a popular SCUBA destination for those who love warm, clear waters, coral reefs, stunning beaches and amazing marine life, including all those brightly colored reef fish but also huge manta rays and whale sharks. Arlo is a delightfully happy boy with a ready smile, probably because he has the perfect Mum.
This is a wildlife/bird blog however so I will post more family photos in the unwinged gallery and continue here with photos of some of the incredible birds of this region.
Our little rented villa turned out to be the perfect residence for bird watching, it being in open woodland on a hill overlooking the sea. Our first hour every morning was spent birdwatching from the comfort of our own balcony. The first bird to mention is the lovely Indian Roller, a common resident of most gardens and a bird we were to see regularly across Thailand and Vietnam.
It was fun watching our resident pair of Greater Racket Tailed Drongos routinely chasing the Greater Coucal out of "their" tree every morning. The Coucal never seemed to tire of this game but he always backed down in the end.
Drongos, Coucals and Indian Rollers are all common in this region which is interesting as they are all quite large, striking birds. We were to come across other Drongo species and the Lesser Coucal later, but none are as common as their larger more spectacular cousins. I never tired of watching the Drongos with their elongated racket shaped tail feathers. They enjoyed clinging to the trunk of their palm tree for some reason I could never fathom, it was not to feed, or to nest and it looked uncomfortable but they spent quite long periods just clinging to the smooth tree trunk, strange?
Another large species in our garden area was the resident pair of Brahminy Kites. They roosted in the tall trees behind our house. They were a regular and welcome sight coming and going from their hunting trips. Although they did not appear to be nesting they returned to the same trees every night.
There were of course plenty of smaller birds to be seen but the large species drew our immediate attention. One of the prettiest of the small birds however was this Dark Throated Tailorbird, a tiny and very busy little species that is always flitting around in the trees and bushes. I was therefore quite lucky to get a really nice shot of this one when the light was perfect, it shows off the delicate colours and shape of a really nice little bird.
Another very attractive small bird is the Olive Backed Sunbird, a very common species but to my eye quite exotic. It is almost hummingbird like as it hovers around the hibiscus flowers drinking nectar. We were to see this species almost everywhere we went, always a pleasure.
The Common Mynah is quite literally the most common bird in SE Asia. They are everywhere and are fun to watch, being highly intelligent, inquisitive and extremely good mimics. Other mynah species are sometimes caged and taught to "Speak" like a parrot, we saw and heard several examples of this, but I prefer to hear the variety of calls and sounds made by the birds in the wild, where they belong.
Another very common bird here is the Streak Eared Bulbul. There are many varieties of Bulbul but this is perhaps the most common and we were fortunate to have a nesting pair right by the house.
The Chestnut headed Bee-eater is the predominant species of this spectacular bird family in the region. We saw them virtually everywhere on our travels and I was able to get some very good photographs. This one was taken in Northern Thailand but there were plenty of these birds to be seen on Koh Lanta. Later we were to find some other, much more exotic Bee-eaters, but they will have to wait for a later blog.
Another common but very attractive bird is the Oriental Magpie Robin. This would be the equivalent perhaps of our European Blackbird or Robin as they are seen in every garden and around human habitation.
The Spotted Dove is a common but nice looking bird reminiscent of our Turtle Dove. There is a local variant of the Collared Dove, (the Red Collared Dove) and many other doves and pigeons, but this is a nice one to represent the dove family
This is a poor photograph of a young Black-Naped Oriole, one of several resident in the tall trees behind our house. I wish I had a better picture of this stunning bright yellow bird species, but as Spanish birders will know, like Golden orioles they are very difficult to photograph. Below are a couple of long range shots giving an idea of the golden beauty of the Oriole.
European birders might be surprised to note that the common "Cheeky Chappie" urban sparrow of Thailand is actually the Eurasian Tree Sparrow, which is much more common than the House Sparrow. Neither of which can hold a candle to this chap though, he is called a Plain Backed Sparrow, which does not do him justice in my opinion.
This cave is the entrance to a dark tunnel through which we swam (with a headlight) through to a little open paradise in the centre of an outlying island. We swam right underneath this nesting pair of White Terns on a ledge in the tunnel entrance. They were very elegant and quite delicate. I wish I´d had a camera with me in the water for a close-up, but had to be content with this shot from the boat which was some distance away.
On another boat trip we watched Great Egrets sharing the spoils of mudflats in the mangroves with Crab-eating Maqaques. While the monkeys ate crabs the egrets feasted upon mud-skippers, a type of fish that leaves the water to "walk" around on the mud banks.