Saturday, 12 April 1997

VIETNAM 1997: Cuc Phuong and Cat Tien (29 March-12 April)

I went to Vietnam at Easter 1997 with Nick Preston, Tom Francis, Doug Page, Alan Whealdon and Norman Williams. Nick and I had been keen to go for several years and it was now possible to do so. Tom and Doug were thinking along the same lines and we decided to team up, four being the ideal number. However Alan and Norman got wind of our trip and the first I knew of their interest was after they had booked flights. Vietnam was opening up to tourists and a visa from their London embassy was needed. I applied for mine in good time but it wasn’t clear that I needed to include a return envelope. This became apparent when I chased mine up a couple of weeks after it was due. After some searching the person in the Visa Department found my passport with issued visa under some papers. It would probably still be there now if I’d not phoned. This blog is based on unreliable memories, scant notebook entries and illustrated with a few digitised prints of views.

Saturday 29 March. After an overnight flight we arrived in Bangkok seeing 3 Little Cormorants, Javan Pond Heron, Asian Open-billed Stork and 4 Black Drongos from the terminal. We then flew to Hanoi where a vehicle was waiting to take us to Cuc Phuong National Park. We arrived at dusk having seen White-throated Kingfisher, Ashy Wood Swallow and more Black Drongos on the way. Accommodation at the Bong Substation, about 20km into the park, was basic but perfectly adequate and one of the locals brought us meals from HQ by motorbike. Tony Palliser was also staying at Bong, having arrived before we did.
Bangkok Airport
motor scooter looked to be the commonest form of transport

Sunday 30 March. After looking around the Bong clearing Nick and I decided to spend most of the day on the loop trail, first birding the grids then climbing up on the ridge. It was very cloudy and a bit damp. We started really well seeing a male Fukien Niltava and the first of three vocal male Bar-bellied Pittas encountered during the day. Bar-bellied was my most wanted bird and it is always nice to see the main target early on. We continued birding along the trail and bumped into Tony. The three of us continued along the trail which eventually started dropping and continued to do so for some time. By now we were a little concerned that we might have taken a wrong turning, or missed the right one, but we were on a well-used trail, not that anyone else was on it, and had seen no alternatives. Time was getting on but we felt we’d past the point of no return so continued as it must lead somewhere. We continued dropping, left primary forest and descended into more open scrub, then we could see paddyfields and a small village - we’d managed to walk out of the park. We arrived in the village just before dusk and, with some difficulty, managed to make our predicament understood and negotiated for three guys with motorbikes to take us back to Bong. It wasn’t far off a 50km trip as we had to travel the length of the park to enter at the HQ and then once inside back to the Bong substation. I’d only once been on the back of a motorbike in the 25 years since since leaving School and was probably like a dead-weight for my poor driver. Back in the park about 5kms short of Bong I was probably too rigid going around a corner and we skidded over in the rain. I’d had enough and walked the rest although the others eventually sent the van back for me. By then I was almost home, and very wet despite an umbrella. I had also managed to melt the sole of one shoe unknowingly resting it on the motorbike’s exhaust pipe although I didn’t realise that until later. An eventful first day that rapidly went downhill, in many respects, since our early success with Bar-bellied Pittas. Other notable birds seen were the disappearing back of a male Silver Pheasant, 2 Long-tailed Broadbills, 2 Puff-throated Babblers, 2 Streaked Wren-Babblers, Rufous-throated Fulvetta and a male Hanian Blue Flycatcher. It rained all night.
outside Cuc Phuong
Monday 31 March. It rained for most of the day. Nick and I concentrated on the Bong clearing, grid trails and the road. We’d be out early, return mid-morning for a late breakfast and be out again until dusk. The highlight was a male Pied Falconet seen from the clearing. We also saw 18 low-flying White-vented Needletails, 3 Red-vented Barbets, 2 Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpeckers, 3 Lesser Yellownapes, a Greater Goldenback, 2 Mountain Fulvettas, a male Mugimaki Flycatcher, female Maroon Oriole, 3 White-winged Magpies and 2 Ratchet-tailed Treepies. A Bar-bellied Pitta was heard but didn’t show.
Bong clearing on a damp, murky morning
Tuesday 01 April. It was dull but at least it didn’t rain all day. We’d established a routine of being out early, returning mid-morning for a late breakfast and then be out again until dusk. Nick and I concentrated on the grid trails hoping for Blue-rumped Pitta but with no success although another male Bar-bellied Pitta was reasonable compensation. We also birded along the road. Birds seen included the male Pied Falconet, 25 Chinese Bulbuls, 3 Rufous-throated Fulvettas, 2 Hanian Blue Flycatchers, an immature male Crested Bunting and a White-winged Magpie. Silver-breasted Broadbill had been seen by the others, a new bird for Nick who wasn’t best pleased and didn’t mind who knew. I was starting to worry about Blue-rumped Pitta which no one had seen or heard but we had another day and a half at Cuc Phuong.
Cuc Phuong
Wednesday 02 April. Nick and I concentrated on the Bong clearing and ridge part of the loop trail. We saw some nice birds, the best day so far, with another male Bar-bellied Pitta, 9 Thick-billed Green Pigeons, male Red-headed Trogon, a Red-vented and 3 Green-eared Barbets, a superb male and 2 female Silver-breasted Broadbills, 11 Olive-backed Pipits, Great Iora, 2 Fairy Bluebirds, Chestnut-backed Shrike, female Purple Cochoa, Orange-headed Ground Thrush, 2 Eye-browed Wren-Babblers, a Hwamei, 3 Rufous-throated Fulvettas, Manchurian Bush Warbler, Eastern Crowned, Dusky and 4 Arctic Warblers, Fukien and White-tailed Niltavas, 2 Hainan Blue Flycatchers, the same Crested and a Chestnut Bunting, 9 Hill Mynas, 3 male Maroon Orioles, 3 White-winged Magpies and 2 Ratchet-tailed Treepies. I should have been pleased with some decent sightings but I went back to the ridge later and by the big tree heard what I was sure was Blue-rumped Pitta call just once. I froze and scanned around but I wasn’t sure which in direction it had come from and it didn’t call again. Very frustrating and it was my turn to have a strop and miss the meal. I was asleep when Nick came back which was to prove unfortunate.
the big tree at Cuc Phuong
Thursday 03 April. I went out half an hour or so before dawn to get up to the big tree early in the hope the Blue-rumped Pitta, if that was what I’d heard, would be more obliging. I didn’t wake Nick assuming the plan to leave to drive to the coast after breakfast held good. My early start paid off with a Malay Night Heron flushed from beside the trail near the big tree. I also saw 4 Red-headed Trogons and a Bay Woodpecker and heard Bar-bellied Pitta. Previously breakfast had been between 10-11 and although I was happy to skip it I didn’t want to be late and reluctantly dragged myself away. Once back on the road I decided to have a final walk through the grid trails parallel to it. While on the grid I heard a vehicle door slam and what was presumably our minibus drive off. I legged it to the road but too late, it had gone. I was back at Bong at 10:30 to find the caretaker with a note from Nick. They had apparently waited three hours for me and left. Just as well I’d not fallen down a gully on the ridge trail and broken a leg. Pity I wasn’t aware that breakfast was going to be at least three hours earlier than usual. The note said they would arrange transport to Tam Dao for me at the HQ and send the van back the next day if they couldn’t. The caretaker told me Nick had been attacked by a tame peafowl while tying his shoe laces and had a nasty head wound so they were going to the HQ and would wait for me there. This didn’t seem likely as if so why not send the van back for me when they’d seen to Nick but I was too uptight about being left to think clearly. What I should have done was shrug my shoulders and go back to looking for Blue-rumped Pitta. I should have stayed at Bong another night but I was running short of food and we’d not ordered any for that evening. There might not be any transport from Bong the following day either. On the off-chance they were waiting at HQ I stuffed my sleeping bag in my otherwise already packed rucksack and started walking as quickly as I could. It took a little over three hours, the last part being quite painful as some grit had found its way into my shoes and not done the soles of my feet much good. At HQ it came as no surprise that the others had left. I was given a room in the guest house and birded around the HQ for the rest of the day but my heart wasn’t really in it and a White-rumped Shama was the best I managed. Before dark a couple of Westerners arrived with a jeep. They were staying at Bong but then heading back to Hanoi the following morning and kindly offered me a lift back with them if I still needed it.
Friday 04 April. I birded around the HQ but walking was still painful and I soon sat outside the HQ waiting for my lift. I later found out that Nick had phoned the HQ while I was waiting outside and was told that I had left. I eventually did, arriving at Hanoi mid-afternoon. I negotiated for the jeep to take me on to Tam Dao where I arrived after dark and found a guest house. At 930m it was appreciably cooler than Cuc Phuong which was nice. It had effectively been a feeling pissed off cum travel day so I didn’t see much. My highlights were 12 Grey-faced Buzzards, 2 Crested Serpent Eagles, male Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrike, 2 Yellow-browed Warblers and a male Black-naped Monarch. The others went out by boat to some mudflats where they successfully saw Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Saunder’s Gull and Chinese Egret although I wasn’t sure why they needed to leave so early the previous morning to do so s it was only three hours away. All would have been nice although I would have preferred Blue-rumped Pitta.
leaving Cuc Phuong

driving back to Hanoi
Saturday 05 April. The day started off dull and thick mist rolled in mid-morning making birding difficult. My lacerated feet didn’t help either. I bought what I thought were two hard boiled eggs from a stall and was surprised to find they were raw – I’d been so used to eggs in the Himalayas being sold hard boiled. My feeble attempts with a Vietnamese Phrasebook were no help at all. Nick had a small scar on his head from his Bong peacock attack but fortunately the bleeding soon stopped, the rest I did my best to ignore (no change in habits there then). I saw White-browed Piculet, 4 Golden and a Spot-necked Babbler, 3 Black-throated Laughingthrushes, 5 Silver-eared Mesias, 6 Grey-cheeked Fulvettas, 7 Black-chinned Yuhinas, 3 Yellow-browed, 2 Arctic and an Eastern Crowned Warbler and 2 Green Magpies.
typical weather at Tam Dao
Sunday 06 April. Thick mist all day made birding almost impossible and I only saw 17 birds of 8 species and one of those, Eastern Crowned Warbler, was only a probable. Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler, 4 Golden Babblers, 3 Silver-eared Mesias, 3 Grey-cheeked Fulvettas, 1 Black-chinned Yuhinas, Slaty-bellied Tesia and 3 Oriental White-eyes. The Slaty-bellied Tesia was about 0.5m above the ground on a branch that was sloping at a gradient of about 1:3. It was singing as it jumped along the branch one step up or down and was absolutely brilliant. A definite mood improver.

Monday 07 April. Our last morning at Tam Dao. Visibility was good and my feet were on the mend but birds remained thin on the ground. Nick and I concentrated on the steps up to the transmitter which turned out to be a good move as we saw 5 Grey Laughtingthrushes and even better 5 superb Short-tailed Parrotbills, both of which were new. Crested Honey Buzzard and Golden-throated Barbet were the only other species new for the trip and my Tam Dao total moved up to 28. We returned to Hanoi and caught a flight to Ho Chi Min City. We’d arranged a vehicle to take us to Cat Tien National Park, about 160 km to the North. The journey seemed to take ages and we were very pleased to cross the river and be shown three chalets near the park headquarters. It was hot and humid, although not unexpectedly so.
a clear day
Tam Dao
Hanoi Airport
leaving Hanoi

over the Mekong River

approaching Ho Chi Min City
Tuesday 08 April. All day on forest trails at Cat Tien, mostly with Nick. One of the trip’s highlights was a male Bar-bellied Pitta watched feeding then preening for 20 minutes. Also seen were male Red Junglefowl, 2 Emerald Doves, 2 each of Great Eared and Large-tailed Nightjars, 10 Brown Needletails, a pair of Orange-breasted Trogons, Great Hornbill, Red-vented Barbet, Heart-spotted Woodpecker (a real heart-stopper), Black & Red Broadbill, 3 White-rumped Shamas, male Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush, 7 White-crested Laughingthrushes (in three groups), Radde’s Warbler and 7 Vinous-breasted Starlings.
big tree at Cat Tien
Wednesday 09 April. We left early and were taken for an hour or so by jeep to Dac Lua, an area of the National Park near where there was a slim chance of Orange-cheeked Partridge. We didn’t even hear one but not being there at dawn probably didn’t help. We birded the dirt road on the way back and forest trails around the HQ. We heard Germain’s Peacock-Pheasant and amongst others saw a pair of Red Junglefowl dust-bathing, 2 Black Bazas, 5 Green-billed Malkohas, 10 Brown Needletails, Stork-billed Kingfisher, 2 Blue-bearded Bee-eaters, Green-eared, 2 Blue-eared and a Coppersmith Barbet, White-bellied, Laced and Black & Buff Woodpeckers, 28 Red-breasted Parakeets, Black & Red Broadbill, 3 Blue-winged and 4 Golden-fronted Leafbirds, 4 White-rumped Shamas, 3 Velvet-fronted Nuthatches, Asian Golden Weaver, 2 Golden-crested Mynas, 4 Black-hooded Orioles, 2 Racket-tailed Treepies and a mouse deer. Before going for an evening meal Nick and I had to quickly evacuate our chalet due to cloud-like insect infestation. We left a couple of windows open and fortunately most had gone (for good) when we returned as we didn't fancy sharing with them despite having brought our own mosquito nets..
open area at Cat Tien
the main track in Cat Tien

Thursday 10 April. Much of the day was spent on the forest trails, mostly on my own. They day’s highlights for me were a Germain’s Peacock-Pheasant preening on a log for five minutes and another on the road nearby for a couple of minutes. A third was later seen on rock where it was calling in full view for several minutes before slowly walking off. Superb, as was a male Bar-bellied Pitta watched on a log for two minutes. I also saw 4 Red Junglefowl including a male on the road, Black Bittern, Lesser Adjutant, 2 Emerald Doves, Banded Bay and male Violet Cuckoos, a day-roosting Barred Owlet, Brown Hawk Owl, 4 Great Eared Nightjars, 15 Brown Needletails, female Banded and Stork-billed Kingfishers, 3 Blue-bearded Bee-eaters, Great Hornbill, 5 Black & Buff and 4 Great Slaty Woodpeckers, flight views of a vocal Blue-winged Pitta (heard towards dusk in an area we’d been to most days so we assumed it was new in), good views of a female Siberian Blue Robin, 3 Grey-faced Tit-Babblers, 2 White-crested and 6 Black-throated Laughingthrushes, Two-barred Greenish and Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, a Brown and 2 Taiga Flycatchers, male Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher and 7 Racket-tailed Treepies. Back at HQ we saw Jon Eames had arrived at Cat Tien and we spent some time catching up with him in the evening as we’d all known from autumn visits to Scilly in the early 1980s. Blue-rumped Pitta was often hard to find and would probably have to wait for a return visit one day.
butterflies on the edge of the main track
Friday 11 April. Our morning at Cat Tien, birding along the main track with Jon Eames. Two Blue-winged Pittas were calling and we had good views of one and flight views of the other. Even better for me were the two broadbills I’d failed to find on previous trips to South-East Asia. Thanks to Jon’s amazing hearing (and knowledge of calls) we tracked down parties of both seeing 5 Dusky and 4 Banded Broadbills. Other birds encountered were 2 Black Bazas, female Red Junglefowl, heard only Germain’s Peacock-Pheasant, 4 Brown Needletails, male Banded Kingfisher, 2 Blue-bearded Bee-eaters, 2 Wreathed and an Indian Pied Hornbill, 3 Great Slaty Woodpeckers, 2 Grey-faced Tit-Babblers, 6 White-crested Laughingthrushes, 6 Brown and a Taiga Flycatcher and a male Crimson Sunbird. We left Cat Tien National Park early afternoon, crossing the river and piling onto the van that was waiting for us. We drove to Ho Chi Min City where we checked into a reasonable hotel quite near the airport.

Saturday 12 April. I saw a Tree Sparrow in Ho Chi Min City and nothing at Bangkok Airport. Our return home was uneventful, as it should be. not my most enjoyable trip but it had some great moments, Bar-bellied Pitta particularly was as good as I'd hoped.
leaving Vietnam

Postscript. Nick and I returned to Vietnam in 2009 where I saw Blue-rumped Pitta twice at Cat Tien, on our first full day after Nick had gone back for lunch (!!), and again with Nick when it hopped out onto the trail soon after dawn on our last morning. It was well worth going back for. I’ve since seen the three birds I missed by not going to the coast so I’m no longer bitter about being left behind at Cuc Phuong (well not so much)! I saw Saunders’s Gull in Japan in 2003 and China in 2010, Chinese Egret in Philippines in 2008, China in 2010 and Taiwan in 2011 and Spoon-billed Sandpiper in China in 2010. Nice as they were, well maybe not the egret, for me Blue-rumped Pitta wins hands down.

[blogged April 2020]