2006 VIETNAM TOUR
We heard the Black-headed Laughingthrush at a great distance back along the road we had just walked. After returning partway and playing a tape several times, we waited. No reply. I played the tape again. No reply. So we continued down the road. But then the laughingthrushes called again. We walked back farther this time and played the tape again. This time the laughingthrushes replied from the forest well above the road. I replayed the tape again and they answered again, somewhat closer. We repeated this several times as the laughingthrushes came closer, until they were just above us in the weeds lining the road cut, but we still couldn’t see them. Finally one was spotted. It shifted its position a bit and came into full view for five minutes, allowing us superb scope views. As it called loudly to repel the intruders, we watched fascinated as the excited bird put all his energy into producing the loud raucous laughter characteristic of the species. He raised the feathers on his crown into a stiff crest, puffed out his throat feathers, and pumped his tail to squeeze out the sound – a great display. Eventually another bird popped into view next to him and they squawked
together. We were quite pleased to see this skulker as well as we did. The previous day, we had gotten excellent views of both the White-cheeked and Orange-breasted Laughingthrushes, and yet earlier the Collared Laughingthrush, for a clean sweep of these secretive southern Vietnamese endemic laughingthrushes.
Among the more special birds seen on the tour were: Black-faced Spoonbill, Jerdon’s Baza, Pied Falconet, Orange-necked and Scaly-breasted Partridges, Siamese Fireback, Germain’s Peacock-Pheasant, Green Peafowl, Nordmann’s Greenshank, Russian and Mongolian Gulls, Javan Frogmouth, Red-vented and Black-browed Barbets, Bar-bellied Pitta, Brown-rumped Minivet, White-throated Rockthrush, Black-breasted and Japanese Thrushes, Spot-throated Babbler, Limestone Wren-Babbler, Grey-faced Tit-Babbler, the dark-cheeked race of the Black-throated Laughingthrush, Black-browed and Rufous-throated Fulvettas, Grey-crowned Crocias, Rufous-backed and Black-headed Sibias, Blue-spectacled and Grey-headed Parrotbills, Asian Stubtail, Grey-crowned, Plain-tailed, White-spectacled and Grey-cheeked Warblers, Mugimaki and White-tailed Flycatchers, Grey-crowned Tit, Black-throated Sunbird, Vietnamese Greenfinch, Red Crossbill, Red-billed Starling, and White-winged and Indochinese Magpies.
Other good sightings were: Wooly-necked Stork, Lesser Adjutant, Yellow-nib Duck, Grey-faced Buzzard, Wedge-tailed Pigeon, Oriental Scops-Owl, Pale-rumped Swiftlet, Orange-breasted and Red-headed Trogons, Banded Kingfisher, Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Wreathed, Oriental Pied and Great Hornbills, Green-eared Barbet, Speckled Piculet, White-bellied and Laced Woodpeckers, Banded, Silver-breasted and Long-tailed Broadbills, Indochinese Cuckooshrike, Burmese Shrike, Siberian Blue Robin, Scaly Thrush, Buff-breasted Babbler, Scaly-crowned Babbler, Large and Red-billed Scimitar-Babblers, Eye-browed Wren-Babbler, Chestnut-capped Babbler, White-crested Laughingthrush, Cutia, Chestnut-fronted Shrike-Babbler, Rufous-browed Flycatcher, Hainan Blue Flycatcher, Blue-throated Flycatcher, Sultan Tit, Chestnut-vented Nuthatch, Fork-tailed Sunbird, Vinous-breasted Starling, Slender-billed Oriole, Blue Magpie, and Racket-tailed Treepie.
Among the mammals we saw are: Duoc Langur, Pig-tailed Macaque, Yellow-throated Martin, and Common Palm Civet. Poor weather in the north reduced our list total some, but it was quite an enjoyable trip. Each year brings better roads, accommodation and food which, added to good birds and gracious hospitality, makes for a fine tour.
2004 VIETNAM TOUR
We were birding along a narrow trail in northern Vietnam when Jerry Kamprath spotted a female flycatcher in a tree. Soon after we found the bird, it flew down onto the trail about 40 ft. away. We followed it in our binoculars in hopes of identifying it. Suddenly, a larger bird landed in the path next to the flycatcher and scared it away. Blue-naped Pitta!! We gawked in disbelief as the pitta hopped along the track. It was on view for about 15 seconds before hopping off the trail and disappearing into the forest. The Blue-naped Pitta is a scarce and little known resident in the forests of northern Vietnam. What are the odds of an entire tour group looking at one patch of forest trail when an unanticipated rare bird flies into their field of view, giving them all a superb look at an unlikely find? We were mightily pleased. The flycatcher got away.
Other special finds were: good looks at Black-faced Spoonbills, Pied Falconet, Orange-necked Partridge, a superb trio of Siamese Firebacks two days running, a fine male Germain's Peacock-Pheasant in the road, a spectacular Green Peafowl perched late into the morning on its overnight roost, nice scope views of Russian (L. heuglini), Siberian (L. vegae) and Saunders's Gulls, lengthy scope looks at a male Javan Frogmouth, Blue-spectacled Pigeon, Red-vented Barbet, Pale-headed Woodpecker, Bar-bellied Pitta, Chestnut Bulbul, White-throated Rockthrush, Black-breasted, Grey-backed and Japanese Thrushes, Spot-throated Babbler, Limestone Wren-Babbler, Grey-faced Tit-Babbler, Black-hooded, Grey, White-cheeked, Spot-breasted and Collared Laughingthrushes, Rufous-throated and Black-browed Fulvettas, superb views of Grey-crowned Crocias in the early morning light, Black-headed Sibia, Short tailed, Blue-spectacled, and Grey-headed Parrotbills, Grey-crowned and Bianchi's Warblers, Fujian Niltava, White-tailed Flycatcher, Grey-crowned Tit, Yellow-billed Nuthatch, Fork-tailed Sunbird, Vietnamese Greenfinch, the large billed endemic race of Red Crossbill, Red-billed Starling, White-winged and Indochinese Magpies, and Ratchet-tailed Treepie.
Other good species seen were: Lesser Adjutant, Black Baza, Bar-backed and Scaly-breasted Partridges, Yellow-legged Buttonquail, Eurasian Woodcock, Great Knot, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Violet Cuckoo, Pale-rumped Swiftlet (Aerodramus germani), Black-browed Barbet, Laced and Heart-spotted Woodpeckers, Silver-breasted and Long-tailed Broadbills, Indochinese Cuckooshrike, Brown-rumped Minivet, Light-vented Bulbul, Burmese Shrike, Siberian Rubythroat, Spotted Forktail, Buff-breasted Babbler, Large, Red-billed and Coral-billed Scimitar-Babblers, Spot-necked Babbler, Silver-eared Mesia, Cutia, Chestnut-fronted Shrike-Babbler, Rufous-backed Sibia, Grey-bellied Tesia, Manchurian and Russet Bush-Warblers, Radde's, Sulphur-breasted and White-spectacled Warblers, Mugimaki and Rufous browed Flycatchers, Asian Paradise-Flycatcher, Sultan Tit, Vinous-breasted Starling, Golden-crested Myna, Slender-billed and Maroon Orioles and Racket-tailed Treepie.
Each trip to Vietnam we see upgrading of roads, accommodation and food, making the tour more comfortable. Add the hospitality of the Vietnamese and it's becoming quite a pleasant trip.
2002 VIETNAM TOUR
We reached the mudflats as the tide fall was well underway, scattering the shorebirds widely as more and more feeding area became available. We searched for several hours for the unique and rare Spoon-billed Sandpiper without success. While there were lots of other shorebirds to enjoy, the star eluded us. We resolved to reach the area at high tide the following morning to improve our chance of finding it.
When we arrived at high tide the next day, the shorebirds were congregated in large groups in the small area of mud available. Within 20 minutes, we had found 2 Spoon-billed Sandpipers and enjoyed lengthy scope views of them over a period of a half hour. Success! The flats abounded with shorebirds and other waterbirds such as: Black-faced Spoonbill, Greylag Goose, Eurasian Curlew, Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits, Spotted Redshank, Red and Great Knots, Rufous-necked Stint, Broad-billed Sandpiper, and Russian (Larus heuglini) and Great Gulls.
I played and played the Orange-necked Partridge tape without response. Then a Scaly-breasted Partridge called. We quietly moved nearer and I played a tape recording of its call. Soon a pair walked furtively into view and gave us good looks. Then I played the Orange-necked Partridge tape again in a last attempt to stir one up. We had checked all the habitat of this species on the previous day and early today and we were beginning to think that we might miss this rare and endangered species. Suddenly an Orange-necked Partridge called from just the other side of the road. We moved close to the edge of the road, played the tape again and waited anxiously. Then 2 partridges scuttled into view only 30 feet away. In the next five minutes, the birds appeared several times, giving us good looks. This partridge has only recently been rediscovered and is one of the world's more range restricted species.
A few days later, we visited a new site for the Grey-crowned Crocias, another rare and little known species. After a couple of hours of watching other birds in this very birdy area, three of the crocias appeared a couple of hundred meters away in the canopy. We got good but distant scope views. We returned to the area several days later and got close views, including nearby scope looks at a preening pair. It was a great thrill to finally catch up with this unusual babbler. Another exciting find was a single Short-tailed Scimitar-Babbler for which there are few Dalat records.
One of the most enjoyable moments of the tour was a morning drive on which we were treated to 15 minutes of a small flock of Silver Pheasants feeding placidly at the road's edge for a spectacular sight. This was after earlier watching several Bar-bellied Pittas and a Blue-rumped Pitta, also at close range from the comfort of our van.
Other interesting birds seen were: Wooly-necked Stork, Lesser Adjutant, Black Baza, Grey-faced Buzzard, Pied Falconet, Bar-backed Partridge, Siamese Fireback, Germain's Peacock-Pheasant, Green Peafowl, Northern and Grey-headed Lapwings, Eurasian Woodcock, Blue-spectacled Pigeon, Banded Kingfisher, Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Great Hornbill, Red-vented Barbet, Black-and-buff and Heart spotted Woodpeckers, Dusky and Banded Broadbills, Chestnut Bulbul, White-tailed Robin, White throated Rockthrush, Black-breasted, Grey-backed and Japanese Thrushes, Spot-throated Babbler, Large, Red-billed and Coral-billed Scimitar-Babblers, Spot-necked Babbler, Grey-faced Tit-Babbler, Black hooded, Grey, Black-throated, White-cheeked, Spot-breasted and Collared Laughingthrushes, Chestnut-fronted Shrike-Babbler, White-hooded Babbler, Rufous-throated and Black-browed Fulvettas, Rufous-backed and Black-headed Sibias, Blue-spectacled and Grey-headed Parrotbills, Sulfur-breasted, White-spectacled and Grey-cheeked Warblers, Mugimaki and Rufous-browed Flycatchers, Fujian Niltava, White-tailed and Pale Blue Flycatchers, Grey-crowned Tit, Sultan Tit, Thick-billed Flowerpecker, Fork tailed Sunbird, Vietnamese Greenfinch, Golden-crested Myna, Crow-billed Drongo, White-winged, Green and Indochinese Magpies, and Racket-tailed and Ratchet-tailed Treepies.
It was quite an enjoyable trip with great birding and gracious hospitality. Each trip we see significant upgrades in roads and accommodation, and now that conditions are improving greatly, the food is often excellent.
I played the tape again along the road in a huge stand of bamboo. I switched off the tape recorder after a couple of minutes to see if there was any response. No response. So we started to move on. Then very faintly was a reply. We strained to get the direction of the call but couldn't. I played the tape. Again there was a response, but we couldn't ascertain where it came from. Again I played the tape for several minutes. No response. More tape. Suddenly there was a loud clear response from close by. I stopped the tape and indicated the direction to everybody. We peered intently into the bamboo hoping to catch a telltale movement. Suddenly a bird appeared, walking in the shadows about 40 ft. away. I caught sight of its black and rusty orange head and neck pattern and its striking striped sides--an Orange-necked Partridge! Over the next few minutes, we all got good views of this very poorly known ' species, the least known of the genus Arborophila . Until about 1993, this species was known from only one specimen, collected not very far from where we were, Cat Tien National Park in southern Vietnam. Craig Robson rediscovered the species here and about 4 other ornithologists had seen it since, here and at two other sites. Ours was the first tour group to observe it. Doubly exciting, it was the last of the 17 Arborophila partridges for me--tally ho! We also had good looks at the Scaly-breasted and Bar-backed Partridges.
We scanned and scanned the large flocks of Dunlins, looking for a smaller, paler bird. After an hour of painstaking study, Jon Eames said he had a possible. He showed us the sleeping bird and we trained our scopes and binoculars on it, waiting for it to wake up and move its head and show its bill. Finally after a long few minutes, it was disturbed by a Dunlin and moved its head about, showing its unusual spatulate shaped bill--Spoon-billed Sandpiper! We breathed a sigh of relief and elation. We'd found the big one. We were in the Red River Delta of northern Vietnam, wading on an islet at high tide in a new nature reserve. The Spoon-billed Sandpiper was found here only a few years ago and it is now known to be here from September to May, making this the most reliable site in the world for it in the non-breeding season.
We also saw Black-faced Spoonbills, Nordmann's Greenshanks, Saunders's Gulls, Russian Gull ( heuglini ), a single Siberian Gull ( Larus vegae ), Grey-lag Goose, Great Knot, and Broad-billed Sandpiper, marking this as a superb site for wintering waterbirds.
As on previous trips to Vietnam, we had a splendid array of interesting and exotic birds, including: Germain's Peacock-Pheasant, Silver Pheasant, Siamese Fireback, Chinese Francolin, Pied and Collared Falconets, White-tailed Flycatcher, Bar-bellied and Blue-rumped Pittas, Rufous-throated Fulvetta, Ratchet-tailed Treepie, White-winged Magpie, Indochinese Magpie, Coral-billed and Red-billed Scimitar-Babblers, Grey-faced Tit-Babbler, Limestone and Eye-browed Wren-Babblers, Yellow-billed Nuthatch, Fork-tailed Sunbird, Vietnamese Greenfinch, Grey-crowned Tit ( Aegithalos annamensis ), Collared and Black-hooded Laughingthrushes, White-cheeked and Spot-throated Laughingthrushes, Black-throated and Grey Laughingthrushes, Spot-throated Babbler, Red-vented Barbet, Siberian Thrush, Grey-capped' Greenfinch, Jerdon's and Black Bazas, Fujian Niltava, Blue-spectacled Parrotbill, Tristram's Bunting, Japanese and Grey-backed Thrushes, Lesser Adjutant, Blue-breasted Quail, Violet Cuckoo, Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Heart-spotted Woodpecker, Long-tailed and Silver-breasted Broadbills, Dusky Broadbill, Indochinese Cuckooshrike, Chestnut Bulbul, Asian Fairy-bluebird, Golden Bush-Robin, Spotted Forktail, Spot-necked Babbler, Cutia, Chestnut-fronted Shrike-Babbler, White-hooded Babbler, Black-browed Fulvetta ( Alcippe grotei ), Black-chinned Yuhina, Grey-bellied Tesia, Brown Prinia, Mugimaki Flycatcher, Asian Paradise-Flycatcher, and Sultan Tit. Add the gracious Vietnamese hospitality, good food and great company, and it was a grand tour.
1997 VIETNAM TOUR
A large bird came flying into view at about 400 yards. We stopped the jeep to have a look. It was an all dark ibis. A quick check revealed the pale ring around the upper neck and nape -- White-shouldered Ibis! We each had a few seconds of this distant look before the ibis disappeared. We were only 15 minutes into our first morning at Cat Tien National Park in southern Vietnam and we'd already seen the rarest bird of the trip. The ibis is highly endangered and survival is doubtful. The jeep started on its way again and had only gotten a few yards when the ibis appeared lower and closer, headed for a landing. The jeep stopped immediately and we all got excellent looks as the ibis flew low across the road and perched just out of sight. I pondered a bit. We could certainly drive closer, but the ibis would likely fly quickly. So I opted for getting out quietly and setting up the scope. We had prolonged and superb views at 80 yards as the ibis shifted about nervously on a large dead tree. There was a dried up waterhole below that he was inspecting for breakfast possibilities. He looked over at us and the' dried dirt below for about 10 minutes, allowing us a great study as he moved about on a large limb, showing us his pale blue neck ring and exposing the white shoulder patches. Eventually he flew off to a more likely feeding post, to great cheers from us.
While the ibis was the rarest and most exciting bird of the trip, it was the pheasants that stole the show. A few minutes after the ibis sighting, we watched 2 female Siamese Firebacks walking in the road for a minute or so. The next morning we watched a fine male fireback walking in the road for about 3 minutes. By the time we left Cat Bin, we'd seen 8 Siamese Firebacks, all well. We also had 2 excellent sightings of Germain's Peacock-Pheasant and a fine pair of Green Peafowl, as well as numerous Red Junglefowl. Later on, at Deo Nui San, we had a Germain's Peacock-Pheasant just inside the forest at only 12 feet. At Cuc Phuong National Park, we had 4 sightings of superb male Silver Pheasants along the road. Here also, Tom Smith got a look at a Gray Peacock-Pheasant, rounding out our pheasant count to 6 species.
In addition, we had good luck with partridges, including a pair of Scaly-breasted Partridges at about 15 ft. and an unconcerned pair of Bar-backed Partridges at 40 feet scratching away at the leaves, searching for food. We also saw a Chinese Francolin and had a fleeting glimpse of a Rufous-throated Partridge.
Other fine birds were: several Bar-bellied Pittas at close range, a Blue Pitta, extensive nearby looks at a wonderful flock of Silver-breasted Broadbills, repeated views of strangely beautiful Long-tailed Broadbills, Dusky Broadbills, a dazzling Spot-breasted Laughingthrush in the sun, excellent views of Collared, Black-hooded, Grey, White-cheeked and Black-throated Laughingthrushes, the White-winged Magpie, the Ratchet-tailed Treepie, the exquisite Indochinese Magpie, Vietnamese Greenfinch, Yellow-billed Nuthatch, Black-breasted, Grey-backed and Japanese Thrushes, White-spectacled Warbler, Brown Prinia, Fujian Niltava, Grey-faced Tit-Babbler, Black-browed Fulvetta, Grey-backed Sibia, Rufous-throated Fulvetta, Black-chinned Yuhina, Chestnut Bulbul, 4 Pied Falconets, as well as the Collared Falconet, Red-vented Barbets, Pale-headed Woodpecker, Red-billed and Coral-billed Scimitar-Babblers, Greater Rufous-headed Parrotbill, Black Baza, Yellow-vented Pigeons, Violet and Asian Emerald Cuckoos, Silver-backed Needletail, Orange-breasted and Red-headed Trogons, Blue-bearded Bee-eaters, 3 hornbills, 2 piculets, Bay Woodpecker, Maroon Oriole, Racket-tailed Treepie, lots of Sultan Tits, Spot-throated Babbler, Large Scimitar-Babbler, Spot-necked Babbler, Cutia, Silver-eared Mesia, Chestnut-fronted Shrike-Babbler, White-tailed Robin, Grey-bellied Tesia, Asian Stubtail, Russet Bush-Warbler, Mugimaki Flycatcher, Burmese Shrike, Golden-crested Myna, Fork-tailed Sunbird, Tristram's Bunting and Brown-rumped Minivet.
Notable also were the very different races of several species in South Annam that are likely to be split one day: Black-throated Tit, Red Crossbill, Grey-headed Parrotbill, Black-throated Sunbird, and Rufous-backed Sibia. Vietnam has indeed taken a beating in recent years, but there are still some excellent birding areas and many fine birds to be seen.
1994 VIETNAM MEMORIES
(1994 KingBird Vietnam Exploratory Tour)
Ahead of us, our guide hacked a path through the vicious spines and entangling grasses bordering the swamp jungle. Behind us, clad in jungle green, his young apprentice toted his seemingly homemade automatic rifle with nonchalant ease. Between the two, our small group of five Westerners (John Gee, Phoebe Snetsinger and myself, along with Ben King and co-leader and Vietnam expert Craig Robson) slithered, stumbled and hoped.
Happily times have changed for the better in Vietnam. Our guide, a grizzled veteran of the former Viet Nam Cong San, was now a forest ranger. His amiable assistant was there to protect us from a potentially dangerous fauna which still, by all accounts, includes Tiger, Dhole, Sun bear, Gaur and even a few Javan Rhinos, never mind the fact that the pathetically few large mammals left in Vietnam are extremely afraid of people. We were the 1994 KingBird Vietnam Exploratory Tour and right now we were exploring the humid, lowland forests of North Cochinchina's Nam Bai Cat Tien National Park.
The critically endangered White-shouldered Ibis (in recent times it is only known from a handful of records in this park and in remote areas of Borneo and Laos) that we sought was but one of an array of species, many of them unique to Indochina or to Vietnam itself, that had drawn us to this "exotic and ill-starred land." Some were almost unknown, nearly all had been seen in recent decades by only a handful of westerners and most were by nature elusive and terrestrial. Nevertheless we had already made inroads into this list and by the end of our 4 weeks, 15 out of 17 special target birds listed by Ben would have fallen to us. This 90% achievement had taken some achieving!
Despite several major efforts we never did connect with the elusive ibis. Nevertheless Cat Tien (where the common corvid was the Racket-tailed Treepie, the common swift, the White-vented Needletail, the common myna, the Golden-crested and where the wails of Crested Gibbons and Green Peafowl dominated the dawn chorus) had already given us several superb looks at Germain's Peacock-Pheasant (7 individuals in all, including 5 on one day). This was Ben's 43rd Pheasant and endemic to South Central Vietnam. Here too we had found the difficult Pale-headed Woodpecker, flushed both Barred and Yellow-legged Buttonquails and watched a fine fish-owl with its well-grown youngster. Sadly it had turned out to be a Brown and not the Tawny that we would all have preferred. A male Siamese Fireback had also proved frustrating, crossing the track behind our decrepit old open jeep and not in front where those who most wanted it had, understandably, been looking.
Prior to this, finding the specials of North Vietnam had also been a challenge. Overcast and often damp conditions (with one day a splendid exception) had dominated our 5 days of camping in the rolling lowland and selectively logged forests of Cat Bin-Ho Ke Go in North Annam. Here the forests echoed all day with the evocative calls of Crested Argus and Grey Peacock-Pheasants. We never did see the former, a spectacular but pathologically shy creature, but over several days did manage, with a lot of effort, several sightings of the latter even if most were brief and we never did all manage to claim it. A few of the enigmatic Imperial and Vietnamese Pheasants are still trapped in this area but our failure to see either can be put in perspective by both this and the fact that, in nearly a year of field work in Vietnam, Craig had only seen a trapped immature male Imperial and once flushed a possible Vietnamese. Two pairs of Vietnamese are in the Hanoi Zoo--a handsome blue Lophura with the male sporting a white crown and, in full plumage, long white central tail feathers.
Other specials had proved more obliging. A pair of Blyth's Kingfishers inhabited the stream by our camp and were a daily highlight on our evening checklist. Bar-Bellied Pittas were numerous and vocal and we all had excellent views of this electric creature. The larger and more somber Blue-rumped Pitta had proved silent and more elusive with a pair and a flushed bird (both on our sunny day) our only successes. The rare and often terrestrial Red-collared Woodpecker had also been difficult, but two sightings (on the same day) of a male had pleased some if sadly not all. In contrast the little known and strange Short-tailed Scimitar-Babbler, when found at last, had performed admirably--singing and feeding in full view of all. Four arboreal species had also swelled our total--the spectacularly billed Red-vented Barbet (the only special we were to encounter with any regularity), the subtly different Grey-faced Tit-Babbler, the large Ratchet-tailed Treepie and the truly striking and noisy White-winged Magpie (species number 7,500 for Phoebe).
If the weather had sometimes been difficult at Ho Ke Go it was to prove downright trying at Tam Dao north of Hanoi. This ghostly remnant of a former French hill station lies in the foothills of the mountains of Tonkin and is still surrounded by rich montane forest. Seeing this forest let alone its birdlife proved for us a frustrating experience as dense mist and drizzle thwarted most of our best efforts. The locals happily told us they expected the weather to clear--in July! Nevertheless bloody-minded persistence did bring some rewards. The extrovert Grey Laughingthrush (much more handsome than the books suggest) was several times taped in for close studies and a similar technique also worked for a trio of the often difficult Coral-billed Scimitar-Babbler. Grey Peacock-Pheasant provided its 5th and 6th (when I at last got it) sightings, neat little Black-chinned Yuhinas were present, a female White-tailed Flycatcher was new for some and several Tristram's Buntings apparently new for Vietnam. A flock of 75+ Grey Treepies was also notable although the bigger prize, the Collared, eluded us with but a "possible" in the mist.
In total contrast the mixed pine and evergreen hill and montane forests of South Annam's Central Highlands around Dalat and De Linh were a delight. Here the weather was uniformly cool and sunny, the walks dry and exhilarating, the views superb and the birds numerous and visible. Almost a birding holiday, no less! Our birding here was dominated by our successful search for 4 species of highly localized laughingthrushes (we were to record no less than 11 members of this genus by the time we had finished). The endemic Black-hooded and the near endemic (shared only with South and Central Laos) White-cheeked were numerous and obvious in the lower forests, a habitat they shared with the melodious but secretive Spot-breasted (here of the dark race annamensis). The star however was the superb Collared--resembling an outsize and aberrant Silver-eared Mesia, this highly localized species (endemic to the Langbian Plateau around Dalat) is arguably the most colorful of its fine tribe.
This was by no means all. We had several encounters with Silver Pheasants, taped in Bar-backed Partridge for some extraordinary studies (including one calling in the open for several minutes at a range of about 15 feet!), enjoyed a fine male Blue Pitta and had close views of several Mugimaki Flycatchers (a bogey bird laid to rest for Phoebe), White-spectacled Warblers and Grey-bellied Tesias. Two other specials (both endemic to Vietnam)--Yellow-billed Nuthatch and the very distinct Vietnamese Greenfinch also obliged. Other notable events contributed to our days--close views of the striking Douc Langur (an endangered Columbine monkey), no less than 24 species of forest birds drinking and bathing at an evening water hole, the dramatic golden breasted race of the Indochinese Magpie (often and understandably treated as a full species--Cissa hypoleuca) and some other very distinct races of more widespread species. These included grey-backed Black-headed Sibias with white eyerings, black-backed Rufous-backed Sibias, Grey-headed Parrotbills with black caps, Black-throated Sunbirds with red breasts and the dramatic large-headed and large-billed isolated race of the Red Crossbill.
Ben's pretour descriptions had not lied. We had needed good health (and had all remained so throughout) and reasonably good physical condition. Some of the accommodation had been pretty grotty (but mostly better than expected, usually with plenty of hot water), some of the food quite basic (although it had for the most part been good and sometimes outstanding). There had been some long drives in poor vehicles on dreadful roads (but again the vehicles had usually been better than expected) and some long walks in the heat. Rain and mud (and mist) had indeed been frequent in the north and we had, at times, needed every iota of our sense of adventure. But our Vietnamese hosts and everyone we met had been friendly and eager to help. Craig's knowledge of the areas and the birds had been comprehensive and the itinerary had been followed flawlessly with a few delays. It had indeed been, as Ben promised, a "great trip."
This is perhaps the ultimate South East Asia tour but is not for the faint-hearted. Nor (despite our eventual tally of over 350 species) can it be realistically recommended (the Central Highlands perhaps apart) to any newcomer to Asia wanting a big and easily seen list (try Thailand or Malaysia first). Vietnam can be expected to change rapidly in coming years but its special birds will remain elusive, threatened and in remote areas. For the serious world or Asian birder or for those with that sense of humor and adventure however, this trip is a must. For those of you that follow there will surely be (like there are for us lucky few) unforgettable memories of time in Vietnam spent (as our guide in the north so frequently put it) "Researching ze Birds."
[Editor's note: The camping sector of this tour has been eliminated and the accommodations have been upgraded at all sites. The roads have improved. It is now a relatively easy trip.]
[Editor's note: Dr. Hugh Buck is a veterinarian who has lived much of his adult life in Southeast Asia, selling veterinary products.]