Red River Island, Hanoi, April 20th-May 1st

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Chinese Hwamei, a bird that has been hunted to near-extinction in Vietnam, but which turns up occasionally in Hanoi. This bird was singing loudly on my balcony one morning, within earshot of the Red River Island, and I saw another later the same morning in the North Wood. We must assume the origins of these two to be dubious at best!

I visited the Red River Island on eight mornings between April 20th and May 1st, spending almost all of my time in the North Wood and surrounding areas of grassland and farmland. Happily no one seemed to be bird-hunting in the area during the period, and the destruction of the North Wood has been temporarily suspended. In fact, one good strip of habitat in the wood is still completely untouched – I was told that the family who own this strip haven’t got around to cutting it down yet. The felling of the remaining trees seems inevitable but I am crossing my fingers that they wait just a couple more weeks until spring migration is over ….

On the negative side, the overgrown field immediately to the west of the North Wood – a favorite recent haunt of Japanese Quail – has now been destroyed and planted with crops, and a decent patch of trees and scrub to the south – which hosted a male Siberian Thrush early in the period – was bulldozed overnight to become just another bare earth field.

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Yet more habitat destruction on the Red River Island. Until a week ago, this was an interesting patch of trees and scrub which hosted a male Siberian Thrush on April 21st.

Full sightings list from my visits on April 20th, 21st, 22nd, 23rd, 25th, 27th, 29th, and May 1st:

Japanese Quail – one flushed on 20th and 23rd  in the now-destroyed overgrown field next to the North Wood.
Asian Openbill – a flock of 42 soaring over the Red River on 23rd.
Striated Heron – one in the North Wood on 27th.
Cattle Egret – single bird on 21st and 23rd.
Chinese Pond Heron – peak count of 10 on 21st.
Black-shouldered Kite – resident, 1-2 birds seen most visits.
Japanese Sparrowhawk – male hunting in North Wood on 23rd.
Chinese Sparrowhawk – male over on 27th.
Eurasian Hobby – one over the North Wood on 1st.
White-breasted Waterhen – single bird around the edges of the North Wood on two dates.
Ruddy-breasted Crake – heard singing near the North Wood on 20th but not seen.
Grey-headed Lapwing – one poorly photographed on 29th in farmland south-east of the North Wood.
Little Ringed Plover – 1-2 seen most visits.
Common Sandpiper – occasional singles.
Common Greenshank – flock of 11 on the Red River sandbar on 20th, single still present on 22nd and 23rd.
Barred Buttonquail – scarce resident, one south-east of the North Wood on 1st.
Oriental Turtle Dove – four on 21st and one on 22nd.
Red Collared Dove – seen on most visits with a peak count of 8 on 27th.
Wedge-tailed Green Pigeon – single male on 21st and 23rd. Now four records in the North Wood this spring. All the birds have appeared very uniform yellow-green below with no hint of a white or whitish belly.
Spotted Dove – one on 29th.
Chestnut-winged Cuckoo – one on 1st.
Large Hawk Cuckoo – one in the North Wood on 21st and 22nd.
Hodgson’s Hawk Cuckoo – one showed very well in the North Wood on 25th.
Oriental Cuckoo – singles on 21st and 23rd.
Indian Cuckoo – one singing on 1st, 0.4km south of the North Wood, but not seen.
Plaintive Cuckoo – commonly heard, occasionally seen.
Greater Coucal – common resident, more often heard than seen.
Lesser Coucal – singles seen on two dates during the period.
Grey Nightjar – one in North Wood on 27th, my personal third record of the spring here.
Germain’s Swiftlet – five over on 29th.
Black-capped Kingfisher – single on three dates.
Pied Kingfisher – common resident, peak count of 5 on 29th.
Black-winged Cuckooshrike – 1-2 on three dates.
Tiger Shrike – male on 25th.
Burmese Shrike – common migrant throughout April but not seen since 27th. Peak count of 4 on 25th.
Brown Shrike – becoming more numerous as Burmese Shrike declines, peak count of 6 on 1st.
Black-naped Oriole – seen on most dates with a peak count of 10 on 23rd.
Black Drongo – 12 passing through on 23rd during a morning of heavy drongo passage.
Ashy Drongo – common migrant with a peak count of 10 on 23rd.
Hair-crested Drongo – common on most dates during the period with a peak count of 65 during very heavy rain on 22nd.
Crow-billed Drongo – at least two on 27th, and some distant drongos flying through on this date may also have been this species.
White-throated Fantail – resident in the Hanoi area, 1-2 occasionally seen in North Wood.
Black-naped Monarch – 1-2 on most dates.
Blyth’s Paradise-Flycatcher – male on 25th.
Amur Paradise-Flycatcher – two females on 27th, told from Blyth’s by sharp demarcation between black throat and grey breast.
Red-billed Blue Magpie – resident in the area, up to four seen on most dates.
Grey-throated Martin – just one bird recorded during the period.
Barn Swallow – small numbers on passage with a high count of 6 on 21st.
Red-rumped Swallow – small numbers on passage with a high count of 5 on 23rd.
Japanese Tit – one on several dates in patch of trees south of the North Wood.
Sooty-headed Bulbul – up to five on several dates.
Red-whiskered Bulbul – three on 21st was the only record during the period.
Light-vented Bulbul – just one record of one bird on 1st.
Dusky Warbler – common migrant with a high count of 15 on 22nd.
Radde’s Warbler – less common than Dusky. Up to three on most dates.
Yellow-browed Warbler – sharp decline during the period, from 7 on 21st to none at all on 1st.
Arctic Warbler – three on 29th and five on 1st, with several birds in song.
Pale-legged Leaf Warbler – single(s) on five dates. This species prefers more enclosed forest and is usually 4-6 feet off the ground.
Eastern Crowned Warbler – one on 20th and three on 25th.
Claudia’s Leaf Warbler – regular migrant throughout April but not seen since 22nd.
Grey-crowned Warbler – on 22nd, one seen and a second individual heard, distinctive soft double-note call.
Bianchi’s Warbler – one on 20th. Distinctive call, a soft, slightly cracked-sounding “heu”. Other seicercus warblers seen during the period didn’t call, so ID not certain, but they resembled Bianchi’s in plumage with greenish forehead and crown-stripes not extending to bill base.
Thick-billed Warbler – one on 22nd, then a noticeable increase late in the period with two on 29th and four on 1st.
Black-browed Reed Warbler – a common migrant throughout the period, often heard singing, with a high count of 12 on 29th.
Oriental Reed Warbler – singles on 20th and 22nd.
Zitting Cisticola – common resident.
Common Tailorbird – common resident, pair observed nest-building along edge of North Wood.
Yellow-bellied Prinia – abundant resident.
Plain Prinia – abundant resident, generally preferring more open/grassy areas than Yellow-bellied.
Japanese White-eye – 1-6 on all dates, much reduced in number compared to earlier in the spring.
Masked Laughingthrush – single very vocal bird, heard on every visit and seen on several dates, apparently now the only survivor of the flock of up to 5 that were formerly resident in the area.
White-crested Laughingthrush – one, almost certainly an escapee, on 1st, accompanied by a second bird that resembled a White-crested Laughingthrush but had apparently been dyed yellow.
Chinese Hwamei – one in the North Wood on 22nd. There is also a long-staying bird just outside the area, singing regularly in gardens near my house off Phan Lan Street, and photographed on my balcony on the same date as the North Wood bird. Presumably both birds are of dubious origin!
Dark-sided Flycatcher – singles in the North Wood on four dates.
Asian Brown Flycatcher – common migrant with high count of 5 on 21st.
Hainan Blue Flycatcher – one on 20th was the last record of the spring – this species was commonly observed in late March/early April.
Blue Whistling Thrush – one on 23rd.
Siberian Rubythroat – sharp decline since early April, with only one individual remaining by 1st.
Siberian Blue Robin – male on 27th and two on 29th.
Yellow-rumped Flycatcher – seen on three dates with a high count of three on 1st.
Mugimaki Flyatcher – seen on five dates with a high count of four on 20th.
Taiga Flycatcher – common migrant, seen on every visit with a high count of 5 on two dates.
White-throated Rock Thrush – male seen in the small patch of trees south of the North Wood on 20th, 21st and 23rd.
Siberian Stonechat – very common migrant with a high count of 15 on 21st, noticeable decline late in the month.
Siberian Thrush – adult male in the now-bulldozed patch of trees south of the North Wood on 21st.
Eyebrowed Thrush – two on 20th were the last records of the spring.
Crested Myna – two flying over on 22nd, and three unidentified mynas that were perhaps this species distantly on 1st.
Citrine Wagtail – one on 21st and a flock of 12, the majority apparently adult males, flying north on 25th.
White Wagtail – just one seen during the period, on 20th.
Forest Wagtail – one in the North Wood on 29th.
Richard’s Pipit – 2-4 birds on most dates, usually in farmland south-east of the North Wood.
Paddyfield Pipit – fairly common resident seen or heard on most dates.
Olive-backed Pipit – late singles over on 22nd and 25th, this was a common bird earlier in the spring.
Red-throated Pipit – single over on 22nd.
Oriental Greenfinch – four on 23rd.
Eurasian Tree Sparrow – occasional individuals recorded, this species is much more common in urban areas.
White-rumped Munia – singles on two dates.
Scaly-breasted Munia – erratically recorded, with a peak count of 20 on 25th.

Total species observed during the period: 98
Total species I have observed at Red River Island since March 5th: 171

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

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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.

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