Sooty Babbler, Phong Nha (north central Vietnam), October 7th-8th

Early morning from the road through the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.
Early morning view from the road through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.

The limestone karsts in north-central Vietnam, and neighboring central Laos, are home to several species found nowhere else: Sooty Babbler, the recently split Limestone Leaf Warbler, and the newly discovered Bare-faced Bulbul (so far only confirmed in Laos).

The Phong Nha-Ke Bang national park on the Vietnamese side of the border is renowned more for its caves than its birds, although the dramatic increase in tourist infrastructure in the area over the last five years means that several bird tour companies now visit. Nonetheless, most of the national park remains inaccessible to casual visitors, and further ornithological discoveries are no doubt waiting to be made here.

The fairly new airport in nearby Dong Hoi makes the area easily accessible from Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi, with our last-minute midweek flights from the latter city costing only around US$35 each. The excellent Phong Nha Farmstay can arrange a private transfer from the airport for 500,000VND (US$23); their accommodation is comfortable and nestled in a beautiful rural setting among the rice fields with views to the national park. Other accommodation options, from hostels to basic hotels, exist in Phong Nha village. Traffic in the area is light, and renting a motorcycle is a good way to get around – these cost around 150,000VND (US$7) per day from several outlets in Phong Nha village.

The loop road through the national park is about 50km long, starting and finishing in Phong Nha village. I found the eastern section of the road to be the best, especially the last 3km before the four-way intersection at the southern end of the park. Another spot to try is further north on the same road, where there is a wide track shortly before the steep descent. This track passes through several forest fragments – I had a group of three Siamese Firebacks along here in the early morning and a party of Wreathed Hornbills passing overhead, and it would probably be a good spot to try for a Blue-rumped or Bar-bellied Pitta.

Very basic sketch map of the area, which may be useful to some!
Very basic sketch map of the area, which may be useful to some!

Opportunities to get deep into good habitat are very limited, but fortunately the road passes through some nice spots where some of the key species can be observed. The big bridge next to the four-way intersection is also worth a bit of time, as views from here are good. I didn’t manage to get very close to any limestone outcrops, where the two main target species reside, but I was lucky with Sooty Babbler: 3-4 birds showed fairly well but distantly on an outcrop about 2km north of the four-way intersection. Another possibility for this species would be the trail to Paradise Cave, which passes through some good forest, but the downside is having to pay a 250,000VND fee to access the trail.

Birding was generally fairly slow, with moderate levels of activity from first light until about 9.00am, then it became much quieter, with long periods in the afternoon when I saw and heard almost nothing. I saw 57 species in total during two early mornings and one afternoon birding in the park. I was told that the birds were formerly much hunted for food in this poor region, but rapidly increasing prosperity has led to a decline in hunting – one can only hope that this assessment from a local resident is indeed true.

Green-eared Barbet.
Green-eared Barbet.

List of birds seen:

(not counting species seen outside the park gates, no heard-only birds included)

  1. Red Junglefowl
  2. Siamese Fireback
  3. Rufous-bellied Eagle
  4. Black Eagle
  5. Thick-billed Pigeon
  6. Himalayan/Oriental Cuckoo
  7. Green-billed Malkoha
  8. Greater Coucal
  9. Asian Palm Swift
  10. Red-headed Trogon
  11. Oriental Pied Hornbill
  12. Wreathed Hornbill
  13. Green-eared Barbet
  14. Grey-capped Woodpecker
  15. Large Woodshrike
  16. Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike
  17. Great Iora
  18. Scarlet Minivet
  19. Indochinese Cuckooshrike
  20. Brown Shrike
  21. White-bellied Erpornis
  22. Black-naped Oriole
  23. Ashy Drongo
  24. Bronzed Drongo
  25. Greater Racket-tailed Drongo
  26. Black-naped Monarch
  27. Racket-tailed Treepie
  28. Ratchet-tailed Treepie
  29. Dusky Crag Martin
  30. Sultan Tit
  31. Black-crested Bulbul
  32. Red-whiskered Bulbul
  33. Stripe-throated Bulbul
  34. Puff-throated Bulbul
  35. Yellow-browed Warbler
  36. Arctic Warbler
  37. Dark-necked Tailorbird
  38. Pin-striped Tit-Babbler
  39. Sooty Babbler
  40. Puff-throated Babbler
  41. Black-browed Fulvetta
  42. White-crested Laughingthrush
  43. Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrush
  44. Asian Fairy Bluebird
  45. Asian Brown Flycatcher
  46. Oriental Magpie Robin
  47. White-rumped Shama
  48. Pale Blue Flycatcher
  49. Blue Whistling Thrush
  50. Blue Rock Thrush
  51. Slaty-backed Forktail
  52. Siberian Stonechat
  53. Hill Myna
  54. Blue-winged Leafbird
  55. Crimson Sunbird
  56. Streaked Spiderhunter
  57. Grey Wagtail

Key species missed: Limestone Leaf Warbler, Red-collared Woodpecker.

Lifers: Sooty Babbler, Black-browed Fulvetta (total 2,007).

2015 Year Ticks: Siamese Fireback, Slaty-backed Forktail, Dusky Crag Martin (total 927).

Paradise Cave is very impressive and well worth a visit, even though there are no birds in there.
Paradise Cave is very impressive and well worth a visit, even though there are no birds in there.

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