Cambodia Feb 17—Mar 03, 2017

Posted by Dion Hobcroft

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Dion Hobcroft

Dion Hobcroft has been working for VENT since 2001. He has led many tours (more than 160) to Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, Bhutan, Indonesia, India, China, Southwest ...

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It was a great pleasure to return to Cambodia and to the Angkor Village Resort, a truly lovely hotel. Our group of eight headed in the cool of the morning to explore the mixed deciduous forest with plenty of old growth trees that fringe the jewel in Cambodia’s crown, the Angkor Wat. The birds were running hot, as in quick succession we scoped Black-capped Kingfisher, Asian Barred Owlet, the disappearing Hill Myna, Ashy Minivet, White-throated Rock-Thrush, Hainan Blue-Flycatcher, Forest Wagtail, and Black Baza. Exploring the Hindu Bas reliefs, I picked up more nuances ranging from intricately carved Javan Rhinoceros to Bara, king of the demons with his many arms, whose beautiful daughters flirted with the son of Vishnu and led to his imprisonment. You can never stop learning in this life! The Bayon Temple, as exquisite as ever, depicted carvings of Sarus Cranes, Chinese traders, pigs and deer, epic battles between Cham and Khmer, smiling faces, and fighting roosters, all dating to the twelfth century. Hidden in the far recesses, small parties of Asian Free-tailed Bats squeaked in the torch light. After a lunch of cashew nuts, coconut fish curry, shrimp stir fry, and crisp spring rolls with sweet bean paste, lime, and fresh crushed frozen mango to mention a few tasty morsels, we had a siesta. We re-adjourned in the afternoon and visited Tah Prohm, well-known for its Alexandrine and Red-breasted parakeets, noisy flocks gathering in the giant Spung Trees (Tetrameles nudiflora), some over 500 years old and producing hollows much needed for parakeet reproduction: a good first day.

White-shouldered Ibis

White-shouldered Ibis— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

Another jewel in Cambodia’s crown is Prek Toal, the amazing waterbird conservation area set aside in the giant freshwater lake that diverges off the Mekong River called Tonle Sap. Crossing the lake in a traditional fishing vessel, we transferred into three smaller boats once at Prek Toal. This was necessary to access the best areas in the now rapidly drying section. The abundance and diversity of fish-eating birds here is extraordinary. Hundreds and hundreds of herons, bitterns, and egrets were seen (eleven species in total including Yellow, Cinnamon, and Black bitterns), as well as rafts of Spot-billed Pelicans and five species of storks including great views of the critically endangered Greater Adjutant and two of the equally rare Milky Stork (unfortunately not so close, although one did fly past one boat). A large fire had broken out in July 2016 and changed the core section of the conservation area quite markedly from the previous visit in 2014. This area was now a shallow pool of concentrated fish, and the birds were moving in to hoover up all the easy protein. Beyond the fish-eating species, the shallow ephemeral wetlands held a big flock of Garganey, some Cotton Pygmy-Geese, Indian Spot-billed Duck, and lots of Black-winged Stilts, with a sprinkling of Common Greenshanks, Marsh Sandpiper, and even a Ruff. There were great views of White-browed Crake, shy Black-backed Swamphens, and a Watercock. Other species seen well included Laced Woodpecker, Brahminy Kite, Gray-headed Fish-Eagle, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Oriental Pratincole, Dusky Warbler, and Black-browed Reed-Warbler to mention a few. We had one trainee boatman who managed to hit every bush and get bogged in every aquatic weedy thicket—it was quite funny!

The following morning we headed out to Beng Mealea, an outlying jungle temple. Lots of fig trees here attracted a good variety of forest birds with new species ranging from Oriental Pied-Hornbill and Black-crested and Stripe-throated bulbuls to Dark-necked Tailorbird and Two-barred Warbler. Later we had an action-packed hour at some remnant roadside dry dipterocarp woodland that yielded both a pair of White-rumped Pygmy-Falcons (including the orange-headed female in a nest hollow) and a lovely Collared Falconet. Other great birds included a pair of Black-headed Woodpeckers, Burmese Shrike, and tuneful Indochinese Cuckoo-shrike. We proceeded on to Tmatboey for a two-night stay where the local ladies excelled at dishing out tasty food. After a siesta we drove out to a remote dry rice field location with some waterholes. Our luck was in, and we scoped a perched Giant Ibis about 200 meters distant in a tall tree where it stayed put for several minutes. This really was fortuitous, as several preceding groups had struggled to get any sort of view of this rare and shy enigmatic bird that was only rediscovered in 2000 by camera trap. We moved along to try our luck with Brown Wood-Owl, and eventually we found the window on the pair of large owls tucked up in a densely foliaged streamside tree. There were a lot of other good birds to keep us entertained including a rare (for Cambodia) female Rosy Minivet, Scarlet Minivet, Golden-fronted Leafbird, Gray-capped Woodpecker, Changeable Hawk-Eagle, and Rufous-winged Buzzard.

Bayon Temple, Angkor Wat

Bayon Temple, Angkor Wat— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

Having a predawn breakfast, we were well-placed in another site at Tmatboey to see the region’s other most famous bird, the equally endangered White-shouldered Ibis. A nesting pair seemed quite relaxed with our presence (now with a decade and a half of protection). They allowed a close approach without being too concerned and some good photographic opportunities (unlike their Giant cousin). We enjoyed their mournful wailing call. Calling Great Slaty Woodpeckers lured us away and took a bit of tracking down before posing for an extended scope study of a male and female. This woodland holds a remarkably diverse population of songbirds including such gems as White-browed Fantail and Velvet-fronted Nuthatch. We moved further into a remote woodland area where it was a bit quieter, but it did produce a very close pair of Oriental Honey-buzzards and excellent Common Flamebacks. As we walked out, we found our first Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters. Following a break after another delicious home-cooked meal, we chased after some target species. We called in a pair of Indochinese Bushlarks to realize that both a female Yellow-crowned and pair of Freckle-breasted woodpeckers were in the same grove of trees. Moving to another site, some agitated bulbuls were flitting about a hollow, indicating perhaps the presence of a predator, so we went in to investigate. It led to the discovery of a nest hollow of an Oriental Scops-Owl containing three chicks quite well-grown, but still with some fuzzy down and proving quite an identification challenge! Eventually the yellow iris, developing ear tufts, and ventral streaking sealed the deal. We were joined by some fabulous Rufous-bellied Woodpeckers, rarely recorded now in dry woodlands in the plains of Indochina. A final hurrah was a Savanna Nightjar well-located by Kunthea at a nest she had previously found on a prior trip.

Our final morning at Tmatboey was spent at a riverine site with a lot of tall figs and other shady trees. It is a great place to sit and let the birds come to you. A Stork-billed Kingfisher had us off to a good start. Activity was pretty constant with stunning Van Hasselt’s Sunbird, Orange-breasted Pigeon, Black Baza, Abbott’s Babbler, Blue-winged Leafbird, Great Iora, Swinhoe’s Minivet, and Blyth’s Paradise-Flycatcher amongst the highlights. We went into another woodland area, and here we scoped an incubating Brown Fish-Owl at its nest in a massive hollow in a dead tree, rather like a chimney. We had done well at Tmatboey, and it was time to leave after thanking the outstanding efforts of the local guides and ladies who had made our stay so comfortable in this remote district. Heading back to Siem Riep, we drove through a huge thunderstorm that produced considerable rain.

Bengal Florican

Bengal Florican— Photo: Terry Cloudman

 

As ever in Cambodia, we were out early to take advantage of the cool of the morning. Our destination was Ang Trapeang Thmor, a large reservoir built in the despotic Pol Pot era of 1975-1979 when 1.8 million Cambodian people lost their lives. This location is most famous as the last stronghold of the Sarus Crane in southeast Asia—represented by an endemic subspecies. The cranes are quite mobile and can take quite a bit of tracking down in this vast area, but our luck was in again, and we had a flock of 24 birds in view while we had our breakfast. The rain triggered some dancing, bugling, and grass-tossing displays. It was fun to scope this. Another major attraction here is one of the last populations of the rather goose-like Comb Duck in southeast Asia, and we watched a flock of sixty birds feeding close by the cranes. Bird activity was good with plenty of Eastern Marsh-Harriers, lots of Red-throated Pipits including some fully colored up, Spotted Redshank, nest prospecting Oriental Pratincoles, and displaying Horsfield’s Bushlark to mention some. We visited the conservation office where we met some deer researchers looking into the genetics of the extremely rare Eld’s Deer. Unfortunately they had not been able to find any in their search efforts, but had discovered some hoof prints. We headed to some woodland patches where hunting around produced an impressive three owls in three minutes: Spotted Owlet, Barn Owl, and a magnificent Spotted Wood-Owl. All gave super looks. Here we found our only Pied Harrier of the trip—a superb male. Moving past the reservoir added a lot of species ranging from Black-backed Swamphen to Lesser Whistling-Duck.

Saying farewell to Siem Riep, we were to be found in the protected grasslands at Praolay. This vital reserve is the last stronghold of the striking Bengal Florican, a distinctive bustard—black with white wings in the male—that holds a tenuous grip on global survival. Local guides escorted us to our first male that chose the right time to fly past the group of birders as the shutters were whirring. While eating croissants and jam with coffee, a small flock of six Oriental Plovers flew right over us, at least a couple colored up with the ginger-orange chest developing through as they migrate north to breed in remote China and Mongolia. This species is hard to see. Next we worked some tall grassland surrounding drying pools of water where, after giving us the royal merry-go-round, we finally bailed up the endangered Manchurian Reed-Warbler for a decent view in some thick spiny shrubs. Bluethroats performed well, we scoped another male Florican, and there was again a lot of bird activity with new species including Asian Pied-Starling, Plain-backed Sparrow, a fly-by Oriental Cuckoo, and our best view of Woolly-necked Stork. Walking through some fallow ricefields, we eventually flushed up the hoped for Small Button-quail, and in one tall marshy thicket had the bonus sighting of two Yellow-legged Button-quails, complete with citrine legs. An adult Greater Spotted Eagle cruised over. It was heating up now so we adjourned to the newly built Glorious Hotel, and it was really quite glorious compared to previous accommodations I have had here in the past: a good hotel. In the afternoon we returned to a different grassland reserve, this one more threatened by ongoing plowing. In one small area we had a stellar performance from Lanceolated Warbler, a beautiful Chestnut-eared Bunting, several Small Button-quail, and exquisite male Red Avadavats in full color: Kunthea’s favorite bird no less! I very much enjoy birding this grassland area, such a threatened habitat with so many quality birds.

Greater Adjutant

Greater Adjutant— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

The cool of the morning was spent in Krahm, a largely rice-growing area some 7 kilometers from Kompong Thom. It used to be a reliable site for Yellow-breasted Bunting, but as that species rapidly approaches extinction, it is not so reliable! Still we racked up some 52 species within a 500 meter radius of our breakfast site. White-shouldered Starlings were a big hit, as we scoped them feeding in some fruiting bushes. Also new was a wintering Black-eared Kite, great views of Wood Sandpiper, plenty of Pin-tailed Snipe and a tame Little Ringed Plover, singing Yellow-bellied Prinia and Oriental Reed-Warbler, and a more secretive Black-browed Reed-Warbler. A small flock of Comb Ducks were a surprise. We made the longish drive to Kratie crossing the Mekong River. Once settled in we explored more wetlands adjacent to the Mekong and found only winter-plumaged Asian Golden Weavers with their grosbeak-like bills. A strong wind sprang up and, although making it pleasant, it suppressed the birds quite well; overall it was quiet save for Racket-tailed Treepie and Malaysian Pied-Fantail. A well-hidden Watercock salvaged the session as it kept still in the scopes for everyone to try their repeated luck at figuring it out, which eventually they did. Phew!

The boat trip on the Mekong River was a big hit. We soon located a pair of the very localized Mekong Wagtails that appeared to be visiting a nest. Shortly after we landed on a riverine island, the sand banks held a small nesting colony of Gray-throated Martins and also attracted a few Red-rumped Swallows. While watching the swallows we spotted our first Irrawaddy Dolphin. The gales of yesterday returned, so we headed back to port and had several more excellent encounters with the elusive Irrawaddy Dolphins. The gales followed us all the way to Mondulkiri, and it looked like the afternoon would be blown out. In true birding fashion, it ended being one of the best sessions of the tour. We set ourselves in a coffee shop in a sheltered valley, and the birds came to us in a great variety. The biggest rarity was a Pale-capped Pigeon, a single bird showing well in flight. Other good birds included Silver-breasted and Long-tailed broadbills, White-crested Laughingthrush, Black-browed Fulvetta, White-browed Scimitar-Babbler, Pin-tailed and Thick-billed pigeons, Mountain Imperial-Pigeon, Crimson Sunbird, and Silver-eared Mesia.

Giant Ibis

Giant Ibis— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

The great Annam cyclone continued the next morning with some prodigious gusts of wind rolling through. Undaunted, we had breakfast at the Jahoo Gibbon Camp in the Seima Protection Forest. We were joined by a splendid pair of Red Junglefowl. Walking quietly along the trails in the forest with a violently moving canopy, we started to find a few birds. In one sheltered grove on the forest edge with lots of Mistletoe, we watched three species of flowerpeckers (tail-waggling Thick-billed, Yellow-vented, and Plain) and skittish Little Spiderhunters. We had success with Orange-breasted Trogon, but only the leader was able to get his “bins” on the ultra-shy Bar-bellied Pitta. A Banded Bay Cuckoo perched up well, with great views of Black Giant Squirrel (not all that black in this population) and a troop of Northern Pig-tailed Macaques. On the return drive we had a great look at a Mountain Hawk-Eagle seriously on the lookout for lunch. A pleasant afternoon was spent exploring two forest patches at Dak Dam. It was quite birdy, as the winds calmed to a consistent strong northerly. Vernal Hanging-Parrots were well-behaved, and the beautiful carmine-red Black-throated Sunbird (subspecies johnsi) attended purple flowers like a passion vine. The Gray-faced Tit-Babblers were feeding chicks somewhere, but showed well. Asian Fairy-Bluebird was, as usual, a big hit, as the males glowed in the late afternoon light. We found a stunning Annam Barbet that called non-stop, highlighting the various colored patches around its face.

A whole morning was dedicated to exploring forest patches in Dak Dam. It is interesting birding here, close to the border of Vietnam at an altitude of 800 meters. It started well with a small flock of White-cheeked Laughingthrushes that, although shy, did give some good views. Another good discovery was a pair of Gray-crowned Tits, a distinctive subspecies (annamensis) of the Black-throated Tit (split in Robson’s Birds of South-East Asia). It was a new bird for both Kunthea and Nara. At another location we heard Blyth’s Shrike-Babbler, enjoyed lovely Burmese Shrikes, and a couple of folks were lucky enough to not only find but photograph a Burmese Hare. A lovely pair of Chestnut-capped Babblers showed well at the next location before we returned to our original site. Here we found a good mixed flock that held Silver-eared Mesia, Gray-throated Babbler (rare in Cambodia), Rufous-fronted Babbler, and Kloss’s Leaf-Warbler amongst a variety of other species including Common Flameback, Green-billed Malkoha, and Oriental Pied Hornbill. It had been an entertaining morning with a good mix of species, the last bird of the session being another Mountain Hawk-Eagle doing an extraordinary display flight. In the afternoon we returned to Seima Protection Forest. It was fairly quiet, but we did enjoy good scope views of Blue-eared Barbet, Dollarbird, and Blue-winged Leafbird. The major highlight, however, was scoping several troops of the beautiful Black-shanked Douc, a striking leaf-monkey of a genus endemic to Indochina. The adults have peach and blue faces, a long snowy-white tail, and are well-patterned in contrasting black, gray, and white. They are shy, so any good view is a bonus. Unfortunately, a roadmenders camp now occupies the traditional Green Peafowl site with dogs and diesel machinery. We heard just one distant bird bugle at dusk.

Spotted Wood-Owl

Spotted Wood-Owl— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

We returned the following dawn with a similar result, just a single caterwaul from a well-hidden Green Peafowl. Bird activity was much higher (as usual) in the peak hour rush, and we did get some good sightings including a perched flock of Golden-crested Mynas, a male Gray-headed Woodpecker, Green-eared Barbet, and a splendid Great Hornbill that whooshed past. Flowering Brachychiton trees attracted much attention from starlings, parrots, and drongos. We found some very close Douc Langurs, and we could hear the Buff-cheeked Crested Gibbon singing in the still morning air and a Germain’s Peacock-Pheasant growling, hidden in a bamboo gully. We made the drive through to Phnom Penh, making one last stop for the recently discovered Cambodian Tailorbird, described new to science in 2012. It took a bit of a search before a pair popped up, and while not berating us in true tailorbird territorial fashion, they did give good views. It was a great way to finish what had been an excellent trip.

With many thanks and full credit to “Eagle-Eyes” Kunthea, who was a wonderful local leader, and Nara assisting, plus the drivers for delivering a smooth, wonderful, and action-packed trip in wild Cambodia.