Sunshine Coast Birds

Birding and other wildlife experiences from the Sunshine Coast and elsewhere in Australia - and from overseas - with scribblings about travel, environmental issues, kayaking, hiking and camping.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Limestone Karsts and Strange Bulbuls of Laos

Bare-faced Bulbul

Following our 11-day visit to Cambodia (see following posts) we headed north to Laos for a week-long stay. We divided our time between the capital, Vientiane, and the limestone karsts of the Annamite Mountains in north-east Laos, home to some interesting birds and the backdrop to some of south-east Asia's loveliest scenery.

Buddhist monks in Vientiane
 Vientiane was pretty much laid back; we wandered the city streets, taking in the odd scenic attraction such as the Patouxay Monument and the huge golden stupa at Pua That Luang. Dining on crispy fried duck and the like in the delightful outdoor markets by the Mekong River, with Thailand just across the water, was a highlight of our stay in this impoverished communist country's capital.

Patouxay Monument
Pua That Luang Monument
Red-breasted Parakeet was among the species common about the city.

Red-breasted Parakeet
Our birding tour, booked through Green Discovery, began with a drive west to Ban Nasang on the Mekong River, where we failed to connect with Jerdon's Bushchat at a known breeding site. 

Mekong River bushchat site
Perhaps it was too early in the nesting season, and the high level of the river made searching difficult, but it wasn't a good start. River Lapwing and Small Pratincole were present.

River Lapwings
We continued eastwards towards the Vietnam border through the towering limestone karsts of Nam Kading National Park in the Na Hin area to our accommodation for 3 nights – Spring River Resort. This place is set by a river at the foot of a huge karst; with great service and food combined with extraordinary beauty, it is highly recommended.

Spring River Resort

View from Spring River Resort 
Our guide, Mr Noi, was affable and although not a birder, his English was quite good and he knew the birding spots.

Dinner by the Mekong, Vientiane
 We had to leave very early to be at the km 34 viewpoint on Highway 8 at dawn, where we looked unsuccessfully - on this and other occasions - for the karst-loving Lao Langur.

Annamite Mountains from Highway 8
We had better luck just down the road, encountering one of the specialties of the area, a single Sooty Babbler.  Soon after I found a pair of Streaked Wren-Babblers.

Limestone Wren-Babbler
Then we came across a party of 3 Bare-faced Bulbuls, a recently described species endemic to these limestone karsts, in the company of a few Grey-eyed Bulbuls. We concentrated our morning birding along the busy road between kms 30 and 33. A late morning walk along the path to the waterfall at Na Hin was fruitless.

Bare-faced Bulbuls
The next morning was another very early drive, looking unsuccessfully for Mountain Scops-Owl at a known site at km 44, then spending the rest of the morning on an overgrown trail at km 48. The latter is a site for Red-collared Woodpecker, but we had no luck; the large trees it favours have been illegally cut down in recent years for firewood.

Crow-billed Drongo
We did however find a party of 6 obliging Spot-necked Babblers, a group of Indochinese Yuhinas, and a single Crow-billed Drongo – all three of which were on my wishlist.

Kong Lor Cave entrance 
In the afternoon we took the 7km boat ride through Kong Lor Cave, not far from our resort. This is another highly recommended experience.

Kong Lor Cave

Kong Lor Cave
On our last morning we again checked roadside karsts on the way back to Vientiane. We looked unsuccessfully for Limestone Leaf-Warbler – seeing only Blyth's Leaf-Warbler and Grey-crowned Warbler. We found a group of men with rifles and traps who showed us two forest rats they had just caught in the national park. Small wonder that birds are so difficult to find in Laos. It was a feature of the country that birds which are numerous elsewhere in south-east Asia (such as Cattle Egret and Chinese Pond-Heron) are all but absent in Laos.

Trapper with forest rats

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Killing Fields of Cambodia

We visited the so-called Killing Fields on the outskirts of the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh - the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre. This was a moving and troubling experience.

Here we looked at the rows upon rows of human skulls stacked high in the Memorial Stupa in the grounds where an estimated 30,000 Cambodians were butchered by Pol Pot's murderous Khmer Rouge regime. The barbarity of that regime was writ large on those skulls: lines and cracks from machete cuts, holes from hammer blows, caved in skulls. The Khmer Rouge did not waste bullets on its victims.

Victims included supporters of the deposed Lon Nol regime, academics, teachers, people who had the misfortune to wear glasses, actors, artists, Vietnamese, Chinese, or anyone suspected of not being totally loyal to the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot had a saying: Better to kill an innocent in error than to let an enemy escape in error. More than 1 million Cambodians were either murdered or died of starvation after being forced from the cities to grow rice in the countryside.

Memorial Stupa
One old man we met in northern Cambodia told us that in his village, there was just enough food to feed the influx of city dwellers, but in many neighbouring areas, food was in short supply and many died.
Victims were trucked daily to the killing fields of Phnom Penh, just one of many slaughtering grounds around the country. Victims were tortured in order to extract confessions of disloyalty before being slain. As many as 300 a day were killed at the Choeung Ek site, their bodies dumped in shallow graves and doused with pesticide to mask the stench of decaying flesh. While executions were underway, so-called patriotic songs were played through loudspeakers to drown out the screams of the dying.

Newly unearthed human teeth we found during our visit
In one of the many mass graves at the site, we found two human teeth on the surface that had been unearthed by recent rain. Bone and cloth fragments from victims are continually being found.

Land mine victim
We met an old soldier begging from outside the barbed wire enclosure fence. His right leg had been blown off by a landmine.

Killing Tree
We saw the so-called Killing Tree, where babies and toddlers were held by the feet as their heads were smashed against the tree trunk.  We saw graves for different victims. One for Chinese. One for naked women  and babies. One for headless corpses. We saw piles of victims' teeth and bone fragments and clothing, much of it clearly worn by young children.

Throughout all of this, almost unbelievably, Australia was among most of the world's countries that continued to recognise the authority of the Pol Pot regime in the face of overwhelming evidence of genocide. The world stood back and did nothing until the butcher was finally deposed by the Vietnamese invasion of 1979.

On a brighter note, some scenes from out and about in Phnom Penh.

Boy in tuk-tuk

Boat on Mekong

Royal Palace

Monday, 21 November 2016

Cambodia's Avian Jewels: Wagtail & Tailorbird

Mekong Wagtail
After visiting Tmatboey (see following post) we headed east on the long drive to the delightful Mekong River town of Kratie for a two-night stay in the Mekong Dolphin Motel. We searched in vain for Asian Golden Weaver at a well-known rice paddy site outside Kratie for this species.

Our boat

Wagtail habitat on Mekong River
We had better luck the next morning when we took to our sheltered long boat for an excursion on the mighty Mekong River.

Mekong River
It wasn't long before we connected with the Mekong Wagtail - a much wanted Mekong River endemic. We saw an unusually large number of 15-20 wagtails, flitting about in pairs and small flocks between the small sandy islands and flooded bushes.

Mekong Wagtail
It seemed that the wagtails were busy establishing breeding territories.

Irrawaddy Dolphin

Irrawaddy Dolphin
Then we had an excellent encounter with the rare Irrawaddy Dolphin,with 10-15 animals, including a couple of females with young, surfacing about the boat. This species has suffered greatly throughout its limited range along the Mekong River due to being caught in gill nets, especially in Laos.

Little Ringed Plover
Other birds seen included Little Ringed Plover, Indian Spot-billed Duck and Grey-throated Martin.

Grey-throated Martin

Indian Spot-billed Duck
The rice paddies remained weaver-free on a second visit later in the day. Locals were busy attending their crops.

Kratie rice paddy
But it was nice to connect with other birds such as Zitting Cisticola.

Zitting Cisticola
And Freckle-breasted Woodpecker and Red Avadavat.

Freckle-breasted Woodpecker

Red Avadavat
Less enchanting were the mist-nets established along the edge of one rice paddy with the remains of 15 birds in various states of decay which must have died in agony. The villagers apparently are trying to protect crops from marauding seed-eaters but the dead birds were the insectivorous reed-warblers, prinias and cisticolas.

Oriental Reed-Warbler caught in mist-net
Unfortunately the opportunity for a second early morning birding session at Kratie - and therefore probably our best shot at the target, Asian Golden Weaver - was squandered due to an entirely avoidable accident caused by the negligence of our otherwise excellent guide, Mardy Sean. Enough said about that particular matter.

We headed south from Kratie to the outskirts of Phnom Penh where we looked without success at the traditional site for the recently discovered Cambodian Tailorbird. Again, the area was extensively flooded with the tail end of the wet season dumping plenty of rain.

Cambodian Tailorbird

Cambodian Tailorbird
We moved on to a second site closer to the capital where we finally had success with a pair of obliging birds.
Helping out the locals... tailorbird site near Phnom Penh
 Plain Prinia was also here.

Plain Prinia
As was Malaysian Pied Fantail.

Malaysian Pied Fantail