November 11 – November 29, 2016
A mixed cultural and birding trip with Glenn Scherf to Cambodia and Laos, followed by a visit to Penang (see postscript to this trip report). An annotated diary follows.
November 11. We flew to Siem Reap in Cambodia.
November 12. We visited Angor Wat, Bayon (Angor Thom) and Ta Prohm – some of the impressive temple ruins of the area. Hainan Blue Flycatcher was quite common in forest gullies about the ruins. We hired a local guide and driver through our hotel for visits to the various Angor Wat complex sites.
November 13. We checked out more ruins – Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Ta Som, East Meson, Pre Rup. We visited the Landmine Museum set up by a former Khmer Rouge soldier, Aki Rat, who has personally disabled 50,000 of the estimated 3 million land mines still present in this severely war-ravaged country.
November 14. I returned to Angor Wat for early morning birding. I had nice looks at Forest Wagtail and a brief view of what had to be a male White-throated Rock-Thrush. Forest patches around Angkor Wat and other temples have good walking tracks that are pleasantly devoid of the tourist hordes that overcrowd the ruins.
November 15. Siem Reap. Birds in a scrubby patch next to our hotel included Radde's Warbler and Grey-eyed Bulbul. For more images of birds and sites around Siem Reap see here.
November 16. We were picked up early at the hotel by birding guide Mardy Sean and the driver for a 5-day birding excursion organised through the Sam Vaesna Centre in Siem Reap. This has become an expensive operation but there is no choice if you want to visit the key site of Tmatboey in northern Cambodia, which we reached following a 3-hour drive. We stopped along the way to visit the Beng Mealea Temple and to look at a roadside Brown Prinia.
In the late afternoon we birded the open dipterocarp woodland that characterises the area and is the habitat of several species difficult to find elsewhere. We saw the first of many Rufous-winged Buzzards along with Indochinese Bushlark and Burmese Nuthatch. Just before sunset we walked to the well-known roosting trees of the endangered White-shouldered Ibis. Eight ibis flew into the tree tops to roost (somewhat distantly, as visitors are not allowed to approach closely) with a flock of 15 more flying over as we returned to the road.
November 17. Mardy proved to be a competent and determined guide. We were up at 3.30am at our humble accommodation in the ecotourism lodge in the woodlands near Tmatboey village that is the base for local birding. The Sam Vaesna Centre has received international acclaim for its excellent conservation work at Tmatboey; some of the high fees charged for birding excursions are expended on community projects designed to encourage local support for environmental protection. Still, trees continue to be cut in the threatened woodlands that once covered extensive parts of northern Cambodia, and we found wildlife snare traps set.
We walked 3km in the dark to a stake-out for the second target ibis at Tmatboey - the critically endangered Giant Ibis; just 200-250 of these birds survive, all in this region. We tracked down an Oriental Scops-Owl while awaiting sunrise, with no sign of a pair of ibis that had recently been seen at a favoured roost. Our local guide explained that large animals including elephant, gaur and tiger had been present in the area but all were extinct by the early-1980s.
As the sun rose, we heard the distinctive crane-like bugling of Giant Ibis in the distance. It was another 40 minutes or so of wading through chest-high wet grass before we finally tracked down a pair of birds, with satisfactory (if a little distant) views enjoyed through Mardy's scope. Black-headed was among the many woodpeckers seen during the day, which ended with an unsuccessful search for roosting Spotted Wood-Owl. More here for bird photographs from Tmatboey.
November 18. Some more early morning birding in the woodlands before we headed off to the Mekong River town of Kratie. We stopped at some rice paddies near the town which are a well-known site for Asian Golden Weaver, but on this and other visits we failed to connect with the species. A large mist-net was set in the reeds, intended to protect crops from bird predation; it had killed 20-odd birds of various species, most of them insectivorous, posing no threat to crops.
Birds we saw in the paddies included Greater Painted-Snipe and many Pin-tailed Snipe. We were in Cambodia at the beginning of the dry season, with plenty of water still about from the wet season. It is possible this cost me the weaver and probably other species such as Pale-capped Pigeon at Tmatboey, as we could not reach some key sites in the wet conditions.
November 19. We took a boat ride up the Mekong River in the early morning and it did not take long to find the Mekong Wagtail, a key target that is endemic to the river. We saw at least 15 birds flying about the flooded bushes and exposed sandbanks, their behaviour indicating that breeding territories were in the process of being established. We had a pod of 8-12 delightful Irrawaddy Dolphins – an increasingly rare species due to net fishing - about the boat.
November 20. Another early morning excursion to the rice paddies ended disastrously when I slipped into a drainage canal after Mardy insisted that we walk along a tiny bung which, I had warned him, was beyond my balancing abilities. My leg was cut badly in the muddy water, predictably becoming infected in the days ahead and costing us a precious morning session of birding.
After cleaning up the leg back at the hotel we headed off on the long drive to Phnom Penh, stopping at the well-known site of Kampot for the recently discovered Cambodian Tailorbird. We failed to find it here (again, water everywhere) but finally connected with a co-operative pair at an old site for the species on the outskirts of the capital. See here for images from the Kratie area.
November 21. We visited the Killing Fields Museum outside Phnom Penh, where the Khmer Rouge slaughtered thousands of people. The visit was a deeply moving experience (see here for more).
November 22. We flew to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, and our hotel by the Mekong River, where Thailand can be seen across the water and the riverside restaurants in the evening were delightful.
November 23. A relaxed day about Vientiane, visiting the Patouxay Monument and local markets.
November 24. Another day about Vientiane.
November 25. We were met early by our guide, Mr Noi, and driver for a 4-day tour organised through Vientiane-based company Green Discovery. Mr Noi is not a birding guide but knows the key sites as he has worked with the big birding tour companies; he proved to be an affable and capable guide. We headed west from the capital to Ban Nasang, a well-known breeding site for Jerdon's Bushchat, but failed to find any. This was probably because the river level was high and my (by now) badly infected leg seriously compromised my ability to search for the bird; it is also possible the bushchats had not yet returned to their nesting grounds.
In the afternoon we headed east to the fabulous limestone karsts of the Annamite Mountains and the Spring River Resort, a place of great beauty with some of the best food of the trip.
November 26. The downside of Spring River is that is quite a way from the birding spots (the main birding lodge at Na Hin had been booked out) so it was an early morning departure to reach a lookout at km 34 on Highway 8 at sunrise, where unfortunately we failed to detect any Lao Lamurs, which are often seen from here sitting atop the limestone pinnacles.
We concentrated our birding between km 30 and km 33 along the road, which is flanked here by limestone karsts on both sides. We eventually tracked down the key target: 3 Bare-faced Bulbuls in a mixed flock with Grey-eyed Bulbuls in bare trees at the rock base. This species is endemic to the limestone karsts of Laos. Soon after we found a single Sooty Babbler, the second key target; the species is endemic to the Annamite Mountains of Laos and nearby Vietnam. Also here were a pair of Limestone Wren-Babblers. We walked the waterfall trail at Na Hin but saw nothing.
Laos generally was remarkably bird-free relative to other south-east Asian countries as birds are hunted heavily in this impoverished country. We noticed during our visit to the mountains that for the first time on this trip, the weather was decidedly and unexpectedly cool. In many reports I had read of stiflingly hot conditions while birding the karsts so I was ill-prepared clothes-wise for the chilly early mornings.
November 27. We had another early morning start but this time headed east instead of west of Na Hin along Highway 8 to evergreen forest patches. We looked without success for Mountain Scops-Owl along a forest trail at km 44 before spending the morning along an overgrown, steep trail at a key site at km 48. Here we failed to find the localised Red-collared Woodpecker; many large trees in the remnant forest had been recently cut and as other groups have failed to see the species here, it may no longer be present.
We did however see Spot-necked Babbler, Indochinese Yuhina and Crow-billed Drongo. In the afternoon we took the 7km boat ride through the Kong Lot Cave near our resort – a delightful sojourn and highly recommended.
November 28. Some more morning birding along Highway 8 failed to find langurs or anything else of interest. I dipped on Limestone Leaf-Warbler - just a few Blyth's and Greenish Leaf-Warblers showed – but apparently the species is rare here. We encountered some hunters who had trapped two large forest rats in the forest, although it is supposedly protected in the Nam Kading National Park, which covers this area. Images from Laos can be seen here. Then we drove back to Vientiane.
November 29. We flew from Vientiane to Penang in Malaysia (see following postscript).
For an annotated list of birds and mammals seen in Laos and Cambodia, see the full trip report which is published here on Surfbirds.
Following the visit to Cambodia and Laos we had a week relaxing in Penang, Malaysia. I teemed up with local guide Choy Wai Mun (blog site here) for a full day's birding on December 1. We started well before dark at Bukit Pancho in an unsuccessful bid to find Blyth's and Gould's Frogmouths. We moved on to the remnant forest patch at Air Hitam Dalam, where I finally saw Spotted Wood-Owl, a bird I had dipped on several times previously, and Streak-breasted Woodpecker. Then another long overdue Asian bird, Purple-backed (Daurian) Starling was added to the list at Permatang Pauh, where this species comprised about 10 per cent of a huge feeding flock, mostly Asian Glossy Starlings, in a large fruiting fig. We looked unsuccessfully for Nordmann's Greenshank at Teluk Air Tawa but good waders in the rice paddies included Temminck's Stint, Long-toed Stint and Grey-headed Lapwing. I returned two days later to Teluk Air Tawa with Choo Eng Tan (who had visited Air Hitam Dalam with me in 2010) but still no greenshanks. See here for more on Penang.