Hanoi’s Secret Migrant Hotspot

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Baikal Bush Warbler at Red River Island, Hanoi, March 2016.

If you’d told me when I moved to Hanoi at the end of February that I would find myself living just a 10-minute cycle ride away from one of the best birding spots I have ever experienced, I wouldn’t have believed you.

The Red River is a major migratory flyway which passes through the heart of this noisy, polluted, crowded city. There isn’t much space for birds here – urban development is rife, and most of the land that hasn’t yet been built upon has been given over to high-intensity agricultural fields and banana plantations, neither of which are very good for birds.

However, on the “Red River Island” (which is actually only an island in the wet season), a few small pockets of undisturbed habitat remain. Foremost among these is a small wood, only about two hectares in size, which offers practically the only decent cover for migrant birds for many miles around. Combined with nearby patches of remnant tall grassland, this area is an oasis in the urban sprawl for tired migrants as they follow the course of the river.

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The small wood on Red River Island – it may not look like much, but it’s the only decent patch of cover for birds for miles around.

I’ve been visiting the area since early March, with a running total of 11 visits spread over 20 days, and have so far recorded an impressive 104 bird species. The best area by far is the small wood, but I’ve visited other parts of the island too, and depending on time I quite often check out an area of swampy ponds halfway along the western edge as well as the wood.

I’ll start with some of the “silly” birds I’ve seen in the wood. The other day, there were two Wedge-tailed Green Pigeons in there – quite what they were doing so far away from their preferred habitat of montane forest is anyone’s guess. This morning, I flushed a Grey Nightjar on two occasions, even managing to get a very poor photo of it perched in a bush. A small flock of Red-billed Blue Magpies is resident, they usually fly in from the north-west and pass through the wood before disappearing – where do they go? – it seems remarkable that they can survive here. Equally baffling, a small flock of Masked Laughingthrushes have been regularly seen for at least a year, and have reportedly even bred – given the amount of bird poaching and trapping that occurs in Vietnam, it’s amazing that they are still alive. The local Red-breasted Parakeet could have hopped out of a cage, but the fairly frequent Blue Whistling Thrushes – of both the yellow-billed and dark-billed races – may well be genuine wanderers.

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A Grey Nightjar lurking in the bushes – a most unexpected find.

The birds here can make you feel like you’re in some remote montane forest a long way from the city. Bianchi’s Warbler, Claudia’s Leaf Warbler, Sulphur-breasted Warbler, White-throated Fantail, Black-naped Monarch, Grey-headed Canary-Flycatcher, Rosy Minivet, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo and Chestnut-flanked White-eye are just some of the forest birds that I’ve encountered in the wood so far.

Other species are perhaps a little more expected as migrants here. I hear thrushes on every visit, but they are invariably very wary, and masters of melting away into the treetops. The majority of those I have seen have turned out to be Japanese Thrushes, but I have also notched up several very smart Grey-backed Thrushes and one Black-breasted Thrush. Judging by past reports, flycatchers are something of a specialty here – these start to appear in mid-March, with several beautiful Blue-and-White Flycatchers during my last couple of visits as well as long-staying male Hainan Blue and Hill Blue Flycatchers. I’m looking forward to the prospect of encountering a wide variety of spring-plumaged flycatchers during the peak month of April.

No trip to the wood would be complete without spending a while trying to track down some skulkers. You get the feeling that almost anything could be lurking in the quite dense undergrowth under the trees, with “tick”, “tack”, “tseep” and “churr” calls often heard deep within the thickets. Some of the easier birds to find – with patience! – include Dusky Warbler, Asian Stubtail and Siberian Rubythroat, while others I have been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of include Rufous-tailed Robin, Manchurian Bush-Warbler, Brownish-Flanked Bush Warbler, and fairly regular Tristram’s Bunting.

Yellow-bellied Prinias and Common Tailorbirds are annoyingly common in the undergrowth – the usual rule of thumb seems to be that if you can actually see it, it’s probably going to turn out to be one of these two!

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Habitat in the wood is not the best, but it’s amazing what the birds will put up with when there’s nowhere else to hide!

Outside the wood, towards the northern end of the island, a few patches of tall grassland remain, although this is being rapidly encroached by agricultural land. A few days ago, I saw two Chinese Penduline Tits here – this species has overwintered in the Red River area in previous years, but its official status is rare vagrant to the south-east Asia region. I’ve also seen Crested Bunting in this area twice in the past week, apparently two different individuals. There is a small pond here which occasionally has a lingering Pied Kingfisher or Green Sandpiper. On one occasion, I was very surprised when a Baikal Bush Warbler popped out of the grass right at my feet, even allowing me to take a photo – a rare opportunity indeed, as this locustella is known to be a master skulker!

I have marked the location of the wood on this Google Maps link .

Another worthwhile spot for those with the time is an area of grassland and ponds along the western edge of the island. Citrine Wagtail, Red-throated Pipit and Bluethroat always seem to be hanging around, and I’ve also had crippling views of Lanceolated Warbler, Common Rosefinch, and Little Bunting among other goodies. The general area on Google Maps is here.

One fly in the ointment of the Red River Island is – predictably in Vietnam – the activities of bird poachers here. Bird traps and mist nets are commonly encountered, especially near the ponds along the western edge, and I’ve also come across poachers mist-netting in the small wood. Their main targets appear to be munias (in the traps) and white-eyes (in the nets), but surprisingly there are still plenty of Scaly-breasted Munias and Japanese White-eyes on the island despite the extensive trapping.

I hope this short account of the wonders of the Red River Island will encourage other birders to visit this spring. If you come, do let me know what you see! (and submit your sightings on eBird).

Full List of Birds Seen at Red River Island, Hanoi, March 5th-25th 2016:

  1. Grey Heron
  2. Chinese Pond Heron
  3. Black-shouldered Kite
  4. Grey-faced Buzzard
  5. Crested Goshawk
  6. Black Kite
  7. Peregrine
  8. White-breasted Waterhen
  9. Ruddy-breasted Crake (heard only)
  10. Eurasian Moorhen
  11. Red-wattled Lapwing
  12. Little Ringed Plover
  13. Common Sandpiper
  14. Green Sandpiper
  15. Barred Buttonquail
  16. Feral Pigeon
  17. Oriental Turtle Dove
  18. Spotted Dove
  19. Wedge-tailed Green Pigeon
  20. Plaintive Cuckoo
  21. Asian Koel
  22. Greater Coucal
  23. Lesser Coucal
  24. Grey Nightjar
  25. Common Kingfisher
  26. Pied Kingfisher
  27. Red-breasted Parakeet
  28. Rosy Minivet
  29. Brown Shrike
  30. Burmese Shrike
  31. Long-tailed Shrike
  32. Black Drongo
  33. Ashy Drongo
  34. Greater Racket-tailed Drongo
  35. White-throated Fantail
  36. Black-naped Monarch
  37. Red-billed Blue Magpie
  38. Grey-throated Martin
  39. Barn Swallow
  40. Red-rumped Swallow
  41. Grey-headed Canary-Flycatcher
  42. Japanese Tit
  43. Chinese Penduline Tit
  44. Red-whiskered Bulbul
  45. Sooty-headed Bulbul
  46. Light-vented Bulbul
  47. Black Bulbul
  48. Asian Stubtail
  49. Manchurian Bush-Warbler
  50. Brownish-flanked Bush-Warbler
  51. Dusky Warbler
  52. Radde’s Warbler
  53. Pallas’s Warbler
  54. Yellow-browed Warbler
  55. Claudia’s Leaf Warbler
  56. Sulphur-breasted Warbler
  57. Bianchi’s Warbler
  58. Thick-billed Warbler
  59. Oriental Reed Warbler
  60. Black-browed Reed Warbler
  61. Lanceolated Warbler
  62. Baikal Bush-Warbler
  63. Zitting Cisticola
  64. Common Tailorbird
  65. Yellow-bellied Prinia
  66. Plain Prinia
  67. Japanese White-eye
  68. Chestnut-flanked White-eye
  69. Masked Laughingthrush
  70. Hainan Blue Flycatcher
  71. Hill Blue Flycatcher
  72. Blue-and-White Flycatcher
  73. Taiga Flycatcher
  74. Rufous-tailed Robin
  75. Bluethroat
  76. Siberian Rubythroat
  77. Siberian Stonechat
  78. Pied Bushchat
  79. Grey Bushchat
  80. Blue Whistling Thrush
  81. Japanese Thrush
  82. Black-breasted Thrush
  83. Grey-backed Thrush
  84. Daurian Starling
  85. Crested Myna
  86. Great Myna
  87. Olive-backed Sunbird
  88. Citrine Wagtail
  89. Manchurian Yellow Wagtail
  90. White Wagtail
  91. Grey Wagtail
  92. Richard’s Pipit
  93. Paddyfield Pipit
  94. Red-throated Pipit
  95. Olive-backed Pipit
  96. Crested Bunting
  97. Tristram’s Bunting
  98. Little Bunting
  99. Black-faced Bunting
  100. Common Rosefinch
  101. Oriental Greenfinch
  102. Eurasian Tree Sparrow
  103. Scaly-breasted Munia
  104. White-rumped Munia
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Thailand, February 2016

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Slaty-legged Crake at Lung Sin waterhole, Kaeng Krachan, Thailand, February 25th 2016.

Following a very productive trip to Vietnam in January, I was able to swing a full three weeks in Thailand in February before a return to the world of work and study eventually had to prevail later in the month.

I birded alone for two full weeks in the north, chasing some of the specialities that up until now had eluded me, with visits to familiar locations as well as a handful of new sites.

The third week was spent in the company of my good friend Tim Harrop, who although a very experienced birder, had not visited Asia before. With just five and a half days to play with, and with Tim’s number one target bird being Spoon-billed Sandpiper, we focused on the coastal Laem Pak Bia/Pak Thale area followed by three full days in Kaeng Krachan National Park.

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Male Siberian Blue Robin, Lung Sin, February 25th.

Main sites visited:

Doi Inthanon: Thailand’s highest mountain is a staple fixture on the North Thailand birding circuit, with several species found here that can be seen nowhere else in the country. My two main “gaps” from here are Black-tailed Crake and Yellow-bellied Flowerpecker, both of which I failed to see yet again. As usual, the crake was heard calling at the campsite marsh in the late afternoon, but stayed resolutely hidden in the vegetation, while the flowerpecker was widely reported by other birders but failed to show for me. However, the summit marsh delivered ample compensation in the form of a fine Chestnut Thrush.

Lifer: Chestnut Thrush. Thailand tick: Yellow-browed Tit. Other highlights: Dark-sided Thrush, Rufous-throated Partridge, White-headed Bulbul, Pygmy Wren-babbler.

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Spot-breasted Parrotbill at Doi Lang (Fang side), February 8th 2016.

Doi Lo rice paddies: This lowland area between Doi Inthanon and Chiang Mai has only recently been “discovered” by birders. It’s just a few minutes from Highway 108, making a convenient stop on the way between Chiang Mai and Doi Inthanon. Like many similar sites in Thailand, Doi Lo is absolutely bursting at the seams with lowland birds, making for some easy and enjoyable birding. The best birds during my two visits were the wintering Eastern Imperial Eagle and an Asian Golden Weaver, which although in non-breeding plumage was quite distinctive with its thick, heavy bill, quite bright yellow plumage tones, and prominent supercilium.

Lifer: Asian Golden Weaver. Thailand ticks: Eastern Imperial Eagle, Black-eared Kite, Pied Harrier, Common Kestrel, Chestnut-tailed Starling, Green Sandpiper. Other highlights: Ruddy-breasted Crake, Rufous-winged Buzzard.

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Male White-bellied Redstart, Doi Lang (Fang side), February 10th 2016.

Mae Ping: The dry deciduous forest here contains several specialities, including White-bellied Woodpecker and Neglected Nuthatch, although curiously it lacks some of the birds found in similar habitat in Cambodia (eg. White-browed Fantail and Brown Prinia). Much less visited than other sites in the north, this large national park is well worth an early morning, although it can become rather hot and birdless by late morning.

Thailand ticks: Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, Black Baza, White-bellied Woodpecker, Neglected Nuthatch, Two-barred Warbler. Other highlights: Grey-headed Parakeet, Black-headed Woodpecker, Red-billed Blue Magpie.

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Yellow-throated Martens on the road at Doi Lang (Fang side), February 8th 2016.

Doi Angkhang: This has for a long time been my favorite mountain site in the north. Nowadays, it is sometimes overlooked by birders in favor of neighboring Doi Lang. However, this winter, Angkhang has really been producing the birds, with high daily species counts and good levels of bird activity virtually all day. The draw for many is the regular and confiding Rusty-naped Pitta at the Royal Project, but my personal highlight was a superb male Grey-winged Blackbird.

Lifers: Grey-winged Blackbird, Large Hawk Cuckoo, Buff-throated Warbler, Chestnut-headed Tesia. Other highlights: Grey-sided Thrush, Black-breasted Thrush, Rusty-naped Pitta, White-browed Laughingthrush, Scarlet-faced Liocichla, Daurian Redstart.

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Crimson-breasted Woodpecker, Doi Lang (Fang side), February 8th 2016.

Doi Lang: I spent two days on the west side (approached from Fang), and one day on the more difficult east side (approached from Tha Ton). The Fang side is easily accessible in any kind of vehicle, but the road up the east side of the mountain is in very poor condition, and not accessible by ordinary saloon car or minivan (you must either have a 4×4, or do as I did and rent a motorcycle for the day in Tha Ton). It is currently forbidden to complete the full loop in a vehicle, although I was allowed to proceed on foot past the top checkpoints on both the east and west sides of the mountain – birders with plenty of time and energy could presumably walk all the way around the loop.

Lifers: Crimson-breasted Woodpecker, White-bellied Redstart, Grey-crowned Warbler. Thailand ticks: Whiskered Yuhina, Black-throated Tit. Other highlights: Giant Nuthatch, Spot-breasted Parrotbill, Grey-headed Parrotbill, Black-eared Shrike-Babbler, Ultramarine Flycatcher, Sapphire Flycatcher, Crested Bunting.

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Male Ultramarine Flycatcher at Doi Lang – the same bird I saw here last winter. It is so used to being fed by photographers that it flies down from the trees and lands nearby, with an expectant look on its face, as soon as you get out of your car.

Chiang Saen Lake: This is Thailand’s most famous site for wintering ducks, and a number of rarities get found here every year. I was very fortunate to relocate the wintering male Baer’s Pochard after it had been absent for several weeks – this bird was subsequently seen by a number of observers and could fairly reliably be found in the company of around 40 Ferruginous Ducks on the south side of the lake. I found a pale-phase Booted Eagle in the same area, while a male Western Marsh Harrier in the roost at Wat Pa Mak No was also a very noteworthy Thai rarity.

Lifers: Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, Grey-headed Swamphen. Thailand ticks: Baer’s Pochard, Common Pochard, Ferruginous Duck, Northern Pintail, Eurasian Teal, Indian Spot-billed Duck, Garganey, Eurasian Coot, Western Marsh Harrier, Booted Eagle, Striated Grassbird.

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Siberian Rubythroat at Nam Kham Nature Reserve, February 13th 2016.

Nam Kham Nature Reserve: This small reserve near Chiang Saen is famous for hosting Thailand’s first Firethroat, a male which is currently in residence for its second winter. The bird occasionally appears in front of the Cettia hide to bathe at a small pool – 9.00am seems to be a good time, but equally it is possible for it to fail to make an appearance all day. I was lucky, and the Firethroat emerged on cue for a 10-second showing at 8.55am. Nam Kham reserve contains a maze of paths through the reedbeds, and it is easy to get lost or disorientated – best arrive at the site very early to make sure you locate the correct hide by 9.00am!

There are plenty of other birds to see here in the early morning, and with luck and patience a number of secretive reedbed specialists may be seen.

Lifers: Firethroat, Baikal Bush Warbler. Thailand tick: Paddyfield Warbler. Other highlights: Red Avadavat, Spotted Redshank.

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Record shot of the male Firethroat, during its brief appearance in front of the Cettia hide at Nam Kham Nature Reserve, February 13th 2016.

Doi Phu Ka: This is a seldom-visited mountain in Nan province, famous for a small population of Beautiful Nuthatch, and several other species that cannot usually be found elsewhere in Thailand. I found birding here to be hard going, and only late on my second morning did I finally discover a trail leading into good high altitude forest, but I ended up seeing virtually none of the site’s specialities.

The traditional route up the mountain, a trail starting behind the shrine opposite the star-gazing area, seems to be completely overgrown, with a high risk of getting lost for birders without a GPS. A better option seems to be the trail starting on the roadside at Km 29.7, which climbs up into some good forest where Beautiful Nuthatch should be a possibility.

The roadside itself from Km 28-33 could also turn up some good species, although bird activity generally seemed rather low during my visit. I also spent some time on the trail leading into the forest from the top of the pass, at the high point of the road – this forest contains plenty of huge, old trees, seemingly suitable habitat for Beautiful Nuthatch and other forest species such as Green and Purple Cochoas. However, birding here was extremely difficult, with loud, crunchy leaves underfoot making quiet walking impossible, and the sheer size of the trees making it very hard to locate birds.

In general, Doi Phu Ka didn’t repay my investment in time and effort to get there – I got the feeling that a lot of time would be needed to get the most from this site.

Lifer: Indochinese Yuhina. Other highlights: White-browed Piculet, Crested Finchbill, Bianchi’s Warbler, Sulphur-breasted Warbler, White-gorgeted Flycatcher, Small Niltava.

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Burning the rice stubbles in the late afternoon at Nong Pla Lai, near Phetchaburi, February 25th 2016.

Pak Thale/Laem Pak Bia area: The whole coastal strip from Wat Khao Takrao in the north to Laem Pak Bia in the south contains a fantastic range of wetland, farmland, and coastal habitats – the area scarcely needs any introduction as it is world famous for being the favored wintering location for a small number of Spoon-billed Sandpipers, as well as upwards of 40 other shorebird species.

As well as focusing on the well-known locations of Pak Thale, the King’s Project, the “abandoned building” wetlands, and the Laem Pak Bia sandspit, we also visited farmland and grassland inland from Pak Thale, Wat Khao Takrao, and the Nong Pla Lai rice paddies, seeing a total of 132 bird species in the area in two days.

Lifer: Slaty-breasted Rail. Thailand ticks: Far Eastern Curlew, Heuglin’s Gull, Oriental Darter, Black-headed Ibis, Greater Spotted Eagle. Other highlights: Chinese Egret, Booted Eagle, White-faced Plover, Malaysian Plover, Nordmann’s Greenshank, Great Knot, Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Asian Dowitcher, Red-necked Phalarope, Brown Hawk Owl, Indian Nightjar, Asian Golden Weaver, Chestnut Munia.

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Bar-backed Partridge, Lung Sin waterhole, February 25th 2016.

Kaeng Krachan National Park: Probably Thailand’s best overall birding location, this huge national park forms part of one of south-east Asia’s largest continuous forested areas.  Its strategic location in the middle of Thailand means that birds from both north and south Thailand can be found here, meaning a very high species total is possible.

In addition to the birds, mammals are a feature of the park, with White-handed Gibbon, Dusky Langur, Asian Elephant, Serow, Crab-eating Mongoose, Black Giant Squirrel, Asian Porcupine, Yellow-throated Marten, and even Leopard among the species regularly seen. During our visit, a Malayan Sun Bear was occasionally visiting the back of the Ban Krang restaurant for food scraps, but unfortunately we weren’t lucky enough to see it despite spending several hours waiting for it on consecutive evenings.

In three full days we recorded 155 species of birds inside the park gates, with another 10 or so recorded outside the gates at our accommodation at Ban Maka, and at the Lung Sin waterhole. Booking a spot in the hide at the latter site can be done through Ban Maka, and is highly recommended for close views of some normally tricky customers such as Bar-backed and Scaly-breasted Partridges, Lesser and Greater Necklaced Laughingthrushes, and for the lucky few – including us! – perhaps a visit from a Slaty-legged or Red-legged Crake. It’s also a great spot to observe and photograph mammals, for example Mouse Deer and Muntjac.

Lifers: Asian Emerald Cuckoo, Moustached Hawk Cuckoo. Thailand ticks: Blue Pitta, Black Bittern, Mountain Hawk Eagle, Pacific Swift, Rufous-browed Flycatcher, Blue-and-White Flycatcher, Chinese Blue Flycatcher, Hainan Blue Flycatcher, Slaty-legged Crake. Other highlights: Violet Cuckoo, Crested Jay, Black-and-Yellow Broadbill, Black-and-Red Broadbill, Silver-breasted Broadbill, Long-tailed Broadbill, Common Green Magpie, Kalij Pheasant, Bar-backed Partridge, Besra, Black-thighed Falconet, Little Cuckoo-Dove, Red-billed Malkoha, Brown-backed Needletail, Red-headed Trogon, Orange-breasted Trogon, Bamboo Woodpecker, Grey-and-Buff Woodpecker, Collared Babbler, Great Hornbill, Red-bearded Bee-eater, Alstrom’s Warbler, Orange-headed Thrush, Black-throated Laughingthrush, Golden-crested Myna.

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Red Junglefowl at Lung Sin waterhole, February 25th 2016.

Notable records from other sites: Spot-winged Starling – five at a flowering tree in Mae Rim, near Chiang Mai. Chestnut-eared Bunting – two at Fang rice paddies. River Lapwing, Small Pratincole – on the Mekong River near Chiang Khong. Bluethroat, Citrine Wagtail – Tha Ton rice paddies.

Trip Total: 444. World Life List: 2,115. Thailand Life List: 625. 2016 World Year List: 713.

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White-rumped Shama at Lung Sin waterhole, February 25th 2016.
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Rufous-bellied Niltava at Doi Lang (Fang side), February 10th 2016.