Weekly Report: Red River Island, Hanoi, April 8th-15th

Male Green-backed Flycatcher, Red River Island, April 13th (photo by Hung Le).
Almost daily coverage of the island this week resulted in a total of 115 bird species seen. I was often joined in the field by Joy Ghosh and Hung Le, and between us we managed to find an excellent array of migrants during one of the very best weeks of the year.

At the same time as the birds pour through, local people have been doubling their efforts to destroy all remaining fragments of “natural” woodland on the island. The north wood has been decimated, with virtually all of the best trees now gone (although the non-native eucalyptus trees – which are fairly useless for birds – have been left standing). Much of the grassy understorey has also been cleared. It seems likely that the north wood will barely be worth visiting in another week’s time. A sad end to what was until very recently a splendid habitat and refuge for birds.

Simultaneously, a strip of good habitat at the far south of the island is currently being bulldozed, and its imminent disappearance seems inevitable. The “middle wood” is now the largest expanse of remaining forest, but for some inexplicable reason it doesn’t seem to be very popular with the birds, perhaps because of its location in the center of the island away from the river.

On a more positive note, hunting pressures seemed lower than usual, with no mist-netters encountered and just a few munia traps here and there (I released any birds I found in them). Hopefully most of the migrants using the small patches of remaining forest this week were able to pass through this dangerous area unscathed.

Notable sightings on Red River island from my seven visits between April 8th-15th included the following:

Japanese Quail – one flushed from the overgrown field next to the north wood on 12/4.

Jerdon’s Baza – three over on 11/4 and two on 15/4, corresponding with peak passage of this species at Tam Dao.

Pied Harrier – an adult male flew north on 13/4.

Japanese Sparrowhawk – two sightings of single birds.

Ruddy-breasted Crake – one flushed in the overgrown field north of Bai Da on 8/4.

Oriental Pratincole – one flew north on 11/4.

Wedge-tailed Green Pigeon – one in the north wood on 12/4, in exactly the same place as two birds on 22/3.

Chestnut-winged Cuckoo – one glimpsed in the north wood on 12/4, followed by excellent views of another along the western edge of the island on 14/4.

Large Hawk Cuckoo – one seen and photographed near the north wood on 12/4.

Hodgson’s Hawk Cuckoo – one seen very well at the middle wood on 11/4.

Oriental Cuckoo – one at the far south of the island on 14/4.

Northern Boobook – one in the north wood on 9/4.

Grey Nightjar – one in the north wood on 11/4, and perhaps the same individual seen and photographed by Hung Le on 13/4.

Black-capped Kingfisher – up to two seen on three dates.

Dollarbird – one at the southern tip of the island on 11/4, and another north of Bai Da on 15/4.

Eurasian Wryneck – one on 13/4.

Black-winged Cuckooshrike – two on 11/4.

Black-naped Oriole – one at the north wood on 13/4 and 14/4.

Hair-crested Drongo – at least 17 on 11/4, with smaller numbers on other dates.

Racket-tailed Treepie – one along the western edge on 14/4.

Pale-footed Bush-Warbler – three on 8/4 and two the following day, located by distinctive song and also seen on several occasions.

Radde’s Warbler – one in the north wood on 14/4.

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler – one in the wood north of Bai Da on 15/4.

Eastern Crowned Warbler – one seen daily in the north wood from 11/4-13/4.

Grey-crowned Warbler – easily recognisable call heard in the north wood on 9/4, but not seen. Other seicercus warblers seen on several dates during the week didn’t call and therefore could not be reliably identified.

Masked Laughingthrush – sadly only one bird apparently remains from the 4-5 individuals present last month.

Black-throated Laughingthrush – one in the middle wood on 11/4 may have been an escapee.

Yellow-rumped Flycatcher – up to three on four dates during the week, mainly gorgeous males.

Green-backed Flycatcher – adult male photographed in the north wood on 13/4, the first record of an adult male for Vietnam.

Orange-headed Thrush – one in the north wood on 14/4 was probably the same bird photographed by Hung Le the previous day.

Eyebrowed Thrush – small flock of up to 7 present daily around the north wood from 8/4 to 11/4.

Grey-backed Thrush – one at the far south of the island on 14/4.

Yellow-breasted Bunting – long-staying adult male still at cornfield along western edge on 9/4 but not since.

Chestnut Bunting – female-type with above bird on 9/4.

In addition, a selective list of regular migrants and resident birds seen during the week included the following: Oriental Honey-Buzzard, Grey-faced Buzzard, Barred Buttonquail, Oriental Turtle Dove, Asian Koel, Lesser Coucal, Germain’s Swiftlet, White-throated Kingfisher, Burmese Shrike, Ashy Drongo, White-throated Fantail, Black-naped Monarch, Red-billed Blue Magpie, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher, Claudia’s Leaf Warbler, Thick-billed Warbler, Black-browed Reed Warbler, Asian Brown Flycatcher, Hainan Blue Flycatcher, Hill Blue Flycatcher, Blue-and-White Flycatcher, Mugimaki Flycatcher, Bluethroat, Siberian Rubythroat, Citrine Wagtail, Red-throated Pipit, Olive-backed Pipit, Richard’s Pipit, Oriental Greenfinch and Little Bunting.


Weekly Report: Red River Island, Hanoi, April 1st-7th

IMG_6081 (2)
Habitat devastation at Red River Island, photo taken on April 4th 2016.

Migration is in full swing in Hanoi, but despite some good bird sightings my overwhelming emotion this week was one of despair. Local people have gradually been turning the wood at the northern end of the Red River Island into an open-cast mine over the last couple of weeks, cutting down trees and transporting the soil out of the wood in carts pulled by buffaloes or motorbikes. Last weekend, the scale of the operation rapidly increased, with about half the forest clearfelled when I returned to the site on Monday morning.

It seems likely that the entire wood – one of the very few remaining areas of natural cover for migrants on the island – will disappear entirely very soon, with the timber and topsoil sold for a quick buck, and the land made available for yet another banana plantation.

This pillage-the-environment-for-fast-cash approach is one of the most depressing aspects of living in Vietnam. The local view seems to be that everything is there for the taking – the birds, the trees, and even the ground itself – with no regard whatsoever for the future.

To top it off, the man with the mist-nets was active in the small area of the wood that still remains.  I was still reeling from seeing the trees lying on the ground, and I told him in no uncertain terms to take down his nets and clear off. He may not have understood my words, but the tone of my voice and body language made my position clear, and he beat a hasty retreat with his equipment. A little later, I bumped into a Vietnamese birder in the wood, who was similarly despondent about the situation. He told me that he had spoken to the trapper earlier in the morning, and asked him to release a male Hainan Blue Flycatcher they had in a cage. The trapper had refused, claiming it was an Oriental Magpie Robin and would fetch a good price in the bird market. It seems they just ignorantly trap anything they can, sell it if possible, and if it dies – the likely destiny for this flycatcher – they don’t care at all.

IMG_6079 (2)
Male Mugimaki Flycatcher in the clearfelled area of the wood at the northern end of the island, April 4th 2016.

Thoroughly despondent after my experiences of the morning, I decided to explore the island to see if I could find any other wooded areas. About two-thirds of the way back to the Long Bien bridge, close to the eastern shore of the island, I found a small wood. Although part of the area has been very recently cleared, a decent patch of trees still remains, with thick ground cover and no paths inside. This should provide a disturbance-free haven for tired migrants, at least for the time being. Hopefully the wood will survive at least until spring migration is over.

Despite all the bad news, I did see some interesting birds this week. Prior to the disastrous clearfelling, I made two visits to the wood on Saturday 2nd April, the first time in the company of Manoli Strecker and Alex Yates. Drizzly weather had brought in plenty of migrants, with the highlight being a Japanese Robin, and a singing Pale-footed Bush-Warbler which responded well to tape and later in the day came in for some very close views as I sat quietly in the wood. Eurasian Wryneck and a briefly-glimpsed Large-tailed Nightjar were both personal firsts for the site, while other excellent sightings on Saturday included a smart male Mugimaki Flycatcher and one or two Blue-and-White Flycatchers.

On Monday, my “new” wood near the eastern shore produced a male Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, a Hainan Blue Flycatcher, a Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, an Ashy Minivet and a rather odd sighting of a Striated Heron perched in a treetop. However, when I returned there on Wednesday with Joy Ghosh, we saw very little – but I am still hopeful that this new location will continue to reward further visits during the spring.

Up to four Yellow-breasted Buntings – including an adult male – have been present in a dead cornfield along the western edge of the island all week, sometimes joined by a small flock of up to nine Little Buntings. Yellow-breasted Bunting is formerly abundant bird that is now officially classified as Endangered by the IUCN, with a precipitous decline in the last twenty years due to hunting of this species in China. Yet another sad story of the state of bird conservation in East Asia.

After Monday’s depressing incidents in the wood, I haven’t yet had the stomach to return to that area, but will probably have to do so next week to see how the destruction is “progressing”.

In total I observed 78 species on Red River Island during the week, and my total site list after just over a month stands at 128 species.

IMG_6083 (2)
Barred Buttonquail near my “new” wood, April 4th 2016.