Saturday 18 February 2023

Southern Vietnam - February 2023 : Part 1

Vietnam covers a large area of South East Asia, with borders touching Guangxi and Yunnan in China, as well as much of the eastern side of Laos and Cambodia. Therefore, it is not surprising that Vietnam have one of the most diverse avifauna amongst South East Asian countries, with well over 950 species of birds, amongst those are plenty of endemics and near endemics, this is certainly a country no birders should miss. 

Since covid, Hong Kong’s been on full lockdown for almost three years, with extremely strict covid restrictions, making travelling impossibly impractical. Thankfully, restrictions finally loosened towards the end of 2022, and we started planning for an overseas trip. In the end, we got together a group of eight (Captain, Francis, Kei, James Yau, Peter & Michelle Wong, Kenneth and I) and booked our flight to Ho Chi Minh City, Captain contacted Duc Tien Bui of Vietbird Tours to help organize our trip around the southern part of the country. Tien created a customized itinerary for us, the plan was to first head to Tan Phu Forest after we arrived, then we will head straight up towards Da Lat Plateau, after that we will head south to Di Linh, and finally to Cat Tien National Park before heading back to Ho Chi Minh City.

Day 1 -

We flew out of Hong Kong on the 2nd of February, the flight went smoothly and we arrived at Tan Son Nhat International Airport just before noon. Tien met us at arrivals, along with co-guide Duc Nguyen. We got on the vans and headed straight towards Tan Phu Forest. Traffic in Vietnam is generally slow, as thousands of motorcycles ensure you will be at the edge of your seat half of the time, roads were also quite narrow, making overtaking difficult on single lane roads. We got to the small town of Dinh Quan at 2pm for a late lunch before proceeding straight to the bird hides at Tan Phu Forest. 

It was well past 4pm by the time we got into the bird hides. There are two bird hides at Tan Phu Forest, one mainly for Siamese Fireback, Orange-necked Partridge and a female Bar-bellied Pitta, while the other hide for male Bar-bellied Pitta and a pair of Blue-rumped Pittas. Since there were eight of us, Tien suggested we split into groups of four and switch between the hides.

I got in the first hide along with Kenneth, Peter and Michelle Wong. We sat quietly and waited for birds to arrive. The first bird we saw was none other than Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, a bird we are familiar with. Soon, it was joined by other common species such as Buff-breasted and Puff-throated Babblers. 

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler

Buff-breasted Babbler

Puff-throated Babbler

It didn’t take long for the female Bar-bellied Pitta to arrive, this is one of a major target, so naturally we took more photos than we needed! While females are not as bright green as males, their orange crown contrast very nicely with the dark mask. 

Bar-bellied Pitta - female

Northern Tree Shrews and Indochinese Ground Squirrels filled in when there were no birds around, while Greater Racket-tailed Drongos at close range kept us entertained, they were way too close for my 500mm lens, I can only fit it in the frame taking portrait! Things got a bit more excited when a few Scaly-crowned Babblers arrived, a species that is new for me.

Northern Tree Shrew

Indochinese Ground Squirrel

Greater Racket-tailed Drongo

Scaly-crowned Babbler

Siberian Blue Robins, Ochraceous Bulbuls, Abbott’s Babblers and White-rumped Shama all took their turns to show up. Of which Abbott's Babbler was a lifer for me.

Siberian Blue Robin - juvenile and 2nd winter male

Ochraceous Bulbul

Abbott's Babbler

White-rumped Shama - female

A group of four Orange-necked Partridge came out to feed, giving excellent views, these partridges would have been almost impossible to see well before these bird hides. A female Red Jungle Fowl also made a brief appearance. We waited till dark but the Siamese Firebacks never appeared.

Orange-necked Partridge

Red Jungle Fowl - female

We exchanged news with the other group, and Tien said we would change hides the next morning. We took a coffee break at a small house, where we added Asian Barred Owlets. We continued on birding into the evening, Tien stated Oriental Bay Owls are found in the area, a bird I desperately want to see after trying many times in both West and East Malaysia. We indeed heard one, Tien tried leading us into the forest to locate the bird, we got to around 20m from the bird, but everytime we got closer the bird moved back, this continued for a good 40 minutes, in the end we had to give up. Kenneth and I found a Scale-bellied Tree Lizard along the way.

Asian Barred Owlet

Scale-bellied Tree Lizard

We had dinner and headed to our hotel. Our accommodation of the evening was Van Minh Hotel, which offered only very basic rooms that were just fine to stay one evening, since Dinh Quan is not really a tourist destination, don’t expect to be staying anywhere too fancy.

Day 2 -

We went out for breakfast at 5:30am, Vietnamese style Pho and coffee is an excellent breakfast to wake up to.

Vietnamese style breakfast

Our van dropped us off at the second hide, where we waited for the birds. Common birds in this hide includes the usual suspects of Pin-striped Tit-Babbler, Puff-throated Babbler and Ochraceous Bulbuls. A nice looking male Siberian Blue Robin also made an appearance.

Pin-striped Tit-Babbler

Puff-throated Babbler - the 'puff throat' can be seen when they call

Ochraceous Bulbul

Siberian Blue Robin - male

It didn’t take long for the male Bar-bellied Pitta to show itself, this is surely one of the best looking Pitta there is, with a unique blend of green, yellow and blue. The female here was slightly more alert and stayed away from the bird hide.

Bar-bellied Pitta - male

Soon after, a pair of Blue-rumped Pittas joined in, not as colourful as the Bar-bellied Pitta, but still a beautiful bird. Race soror looks quite different from the Guangxi bird I've seen, with much brighter blue nape and slightly more subdued blue rump.

Blue-rumped Pitta - male

Blue-rumped Pitta - female

Suddenly, we noticed some larger birds in the background, and before I could get my camera ready, a male Siamese Flameback popped its head out from the bushes! They were extremely skittish and ran off upon hearing movements in the hide. We waited a while more but they only showed briefly again through the branches.

Siamese Fireback- female

At around mid morning we got news that the other group got the Siamese Firebacks back in the first hide! We rushed over there, only to find the birds already gone. We waited there for the remainder of the morning but the Firebacks never returned. The best bird here was an Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher, a female Blue-rumped Pitta also came through.

Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher

Blue-rumped Pitta - female

Other birds we saw while we waited included a female White-throated Rock Thrush, Abbott's Babblers, an Asian Emerald Dove and a Greater Coucal which kept making us think it is the Siamese Fireback! One of the better bird that came through the bird hide was a female Laced Woodpecker, which later came down to feed on the ground.

White-throated Rock Thrush - female

Abbott's Babbler

Asian Emerald Dove 

Greater Coucal

Laced Woodpecker - female

By late morning we had no choice but to cut our loses and move on to lunch, feeling slightly bummed and partly jealous of the other group! Delicious fried prawns were our only consolation.

Fried prawns...consolation for no Siamese Fireback!

After lunch we packed our stuff and started our long drive towards Da Lat. Tien suggested we may get some late afternoon birding if we can get there earlier. It was already late afternoon when we got to Di Linh, where we stopped for a coffee break. Just outside the restaurant we added our only Chestnut-tailed Starlings of the trip, along with common birds such as Common Mynas and House Sparrows. The winding road heading towards Da Lat was packed with traffic, making the journey longer than it should be. By the time we arrived at our hotel it was already dark. We stayed at Dreams Hotel for the evening, a family run hotel that is very comfortable and cozy.

Chestnut-tailed Starling

House Sparrow

Day - 3

Tien suggested we start earlier, we gathered for breakfast at 5:15am. We woke up to a cool Da Lat morning, at 17°C it is considerably cooler than the lowlands! Breakfast was baguette with fruits, bacon and eggs. We headed out towards northern side of Da Lat, along DT722, to an area known as Dak Ho. Here we visited two bird hides for most of our day. Our main target here is the Collared Laughingthrush, Rusty-naped Pitta, Indochinese Wren-Babbler, Black-crowned Fulvetta and Rufous-throated Partridge.

Inside the bird hide

We first went to the bird hide for Rusty-naped Pitta and Indochinese Wren-Babbler, it was a quick walk up the slope to the makeshift bird hide. Once we settled in, birds started pouring in, including numerous White-cheeked Laughingthrush, Grey-throated Babblers and Mountain Fulvettas.

White-cheeked Laughingthrush

Grey-throated Babbler - race rileyi

Mountain Fulvetta

A male White-tailed Robins showed exceedingly well. As did a few Large Niltavas. Siberian Blue Robins visited regularly. Lesser Shortwings took a little longer, but came out for good views ultimately, the race here is langbianensis, which looks quite different from those in Hong Kong, males with very distinctive greyish face and breast.

White-tailed Robin - male

Large Niltava - female

Siberian Blue Robin - male

Lesser Shortwing - male & female of race langbianensis

Two species of squirrels frequented the hide, including the larger Red-cheeked Squirrel and the much smaller Cambodian Striped Squirrel.

Red-cheeked Squirrel

Cambodian Striped Squirrel

The Rusty-naped Pittas added much excitement to the morning, while I’ve previously seen them in Northern Thailand, race bolovenensis here looks much brighter. This species used to be incredibly difficult to see in the wild, but now almost too easy for visiting birders to get onto their trip list! 

Rusty-naped Pitta - race bolovenensis

A Dark-sided Thrush is another good species to add onto our trip list, this strange looking thrush is always an interesting bird to see, though I’ve seen them at Doi Inthanon in Thailand, they are known to be a tricky species throughout its range. Finally, a few Rufous-throated Partridges came out, again this was not a lifer for me, but a wonderful species of which I always admire the many details in its patterns, race annamensis lacks the rufous throat.

Dark-sided Thrush

Rufous-throated Partridge - race annamensis

We waited for the Indochinese Wren-Babbler but it never came closer, only its distinctive call confirms of its existence. Even the Grey-bellied Tesia came out for a few rounds, giving incredible views and photo opportunity for everyone. Having seen most of our targets here, we decided to head to the second bird hide to try for the Collared Laughingthrush. 

Grey-bellied Tesia

The second hide requires a little but more walking, but nothing too difficult. Here, White-tailed Robins and Large Niltavas were the most dominant species, they constantly chases each other around. Two Rufous-browed Flycatchers were also present, but were often outmatched by the larger species.

Walking up to the bird hide

White-tailed Robin - female

Large Niltava - female

Large Niltava - male

Rufous-browed Flycatcher

Grey-bellied Tesias and Lesser Shortwings were again present. A few Streaked Wren-Babblers also appeared, those here are of race rufiventer, as its latin name suggests this race have rufous vents and underparts, which looks very different from those I've seen in Nonggang Guangxi as well as Malaysia. 

Streaked Wren-Babbler - race rufiventer

Finally, another target species appeared in form of a few Black-crowned Fulvettas, which brought some excitement, this endemic species is only found on the Da Lat Plateau, and was until quite recently still considered a subspecies of the Rufous-winged Fulvetta.

Black-crowned Fulvetta

The Collared Laughingthrush never came, Tien said they’ve not been seen recently, but it doesn’t hurt to try. We headed back down to the road for a packed lunch of roasted chicken with sticky rice. Here we added other birds by the road such Long-tailed Minivet and Flavescent Bulbul.

Long-tailed Minivet - male

Flavescent Bulbul

After lunch we headed back to the first bird hide to once again try for the Indochinese Wren-Babbler. Things were pretty much the same with similar species to the morning, including a pair of White-browed Flycatchers.

Snowy-browed Flycatcher - female & male

Things improved slightly with addition of some good looking White-browed Scimitar Babblers, and finally another lifer for me in form of a few Black-headed Sibia, the race here is robinsoni, also sometimes known as the White-spectacled Sibia.

White-browed Scimitar-Babbler

Black-headed Sibia - race robinsoni

A few Rufous-throated Partridges came out to feed again, this time even closer than before, and light was slightly better than in the morning. Dark-sided Thrush also came out again.

Rufous-throated Partridge

Dark-sided Thrush

We waited and waited, but the Indochinese Wren-Babbler just wouldn’t come! Feeling defeated, we retreated back down to the road and packed our stuff. Just when we lost all hope, Tien got a message from Duc that the Wren-Babbler came out to feed as he was packing the chairs! We rushed back uphill to the bird hide and sure enough a dumpy looking bird with a long bill was feeding on the ground! This unique looking bird is a near endemic species to Vietnam, and certainly one of my top target birds! We returned to the road once everyone got some good photos of this interesting species.

Indochinese Wren-Babbler - finally!

As soon as we got back to the road I picked up a few Red Crossbills on top of a bare tree, this is an endemic subspecies meridionalis, restricted to the Da Lat Plateau. A few later flew further down and even by the road for better views.

Red Crossbill - male

Red Crossbill - female

Here we also added Grey Bushchat and later Green-backed Tit, the latter an endemic subspecies legendrei, sometimes known as ‘Langbian’ Tit, the distribution of this subspecies is restricted to south and central Vietnam, most notable feature is the very broad black ventral line.

Grey Bushchat

Green-backed Tit - race legendrei

Another target bird showed up in form of a few Vietnamese Greenfinch. This endemic species turns out to be very common through out Da Lat, but getting good view is not easy. Fortunately for us, a few did came down to eye-levels which allowed us to get some good photos.

Vietnamese Greenfinch - a very pretty endemic!

Finally, we gave the Vietnamese Cutia a try around some pine forest, but nothing responded to the playbacks. The best bird we managed was a Collared Owlet. Though we missed the Collared Laughingthrush, we still connected with a few of our main targets, Tien said he will keep a lookout for any updates on reports of the Laughingthrushes on the next day.

Vietnamese Cutia habitat

Collared Owlet

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