My seemingly eternal focus on sparrows continues, but in stark contrast to last weekend’s failures, this time I succeeded in seeing all four of my target species. This is no mean feat considering that they are all notorious skulkers, and their status is at best uncommon in Texas in winter.
The rarest of them all is Henslow’s Sparrow. This subtly attractive denizen of grasslands probably overwinters annually in Texas in small numbers. However, until this winter it has been a serious “blocker” for many leading Texas listers, with just a scattering of records annually and no reliable locations. That changed early in February when several individuals were discovered at Big Thicket National Park in East Texas, which have been showing intermittently to visiting birders ever since.
Finding these birds proved to be far from straightforward. They feed singly in long grass, and flush at close range, usually flying directly to the nearest patch of Yaupon Holly, into which they dive and completely disappear. For nearly three hours I tramped around in the grass, flushing three “probable” Henslow’s Sparrows, none of which gave me more than the briefest of flight views – enough to raise my suspicions but unfortunately not clinch the identification, let alone provide an opportunity for photos.
I persevered, knowing from photographic evidence on eBird that they do occasionally perch up on a Yaupon Holly for a few moments before diving in. And finally one did just that. It happened to be a very well-marked bird, and in great light, so apart from the unavoidable branches between camera and bird (for this one virtually never poses fully in the open), I got great views as well as some half-decent photos.
Other bird life was disappointingly scarce, but several Sedge Wrens skulked around in the damp grassland, one of which posed briefly for a photo opportunity:
The previous day, I had arrived early at Bolivar Flats Shorebird Reserve, a short ferry ride across from Galveston. The two main enemies to birding on the mid-Texas coast in winter are wind and fog – and if it’s not windy then it is usually foggy. Neither weather phenomenon is very conducive to finding small birds (ie. rare sparrows) in coastal saltmarshes. Today, it was windy. Shorebirds were everywhere, including plenty of the endangered and irresistibly attractive Piping Plover, and also Semipalmated, Snowy, and Black-bellied Plovers, Least and Western Sandpipers, Dunlins and Sanderlings . A handful of Barn Swallows and a Purple Martin, early harbingers of spring, battled the wind as they headed north.
I didn’t rate my chances of finding any interesting small birds in the blustery conditions, but an area of saltmarsh grass adjoining a small beach seemed to be popular with Savannah Sparrows so I decided to take a closer look. After a while, I found a Horned Lark and some American Pipits, and then …. the briefest of views of two sparrows with orange faces, running on the ground, which briefly appeared at the edge of the grass before disappearing again.
I didn’t see these birds again for 15 minutes, until they suddenly popped up on some grass stems, showing quite well. Nelson’s Sparrows, for sure – but my luck deserted me with the camera, and I couldn’t get a single in-focus shot during the 10 seconds the birds were in view. Naturally, as soon as the sparrows dropped down into a partly obscured position, facing the wrong way, the camera decided to play ball.
The nearby 17th Street Jetty is always a good bet for big flocks of American Avocet, as well as other shorebirds, and plenty of weekending fishermen. The jetty – which is made of huge, flat-topped boulders – extends a long way into the Gulf, clipping the corner of some extensive areas of saltmarsh habitat.
Some serious schlepping over the boulders is required to get to the end of the jetty, and I was more than halfway out when I realized I had left my brand new iPhone in full view on my car seat. Cursing my stupidity, I turned around and headed back, only to flush a very interesting-looking small bird from among the boulders, which almost immediately gave itself up for crippling views – Seaside Sparrow! If I had remembered to bring my phone, I wouldn’t have had to turn around, and wouldn’t have seen the bird.
I spent the rest of Saturday at Anahuac NWR, which has to be one of the very best birding spots within easy reach of Houston. This site usually produces at least 60-70 species during a typical mid-winter visit. The best birds today included the long-staying Burrowing Owl, a Palm Warbler of the western race, the male Vermilion Flycatcher still present, and four Stilt Sandpipers with the Long-billed Dowitcher flock. It’s also a great place to get close to common birds, with the car-based birder having numerous opportunities for photography along the Shoveler Pond loop.
I stayed overnight in the “Crystal Meth Motel” in Beaumont, the cheapest night halt available in town. Next time, I will fork out the extra $20 for something halfway acceptable. However, I survived the night, and with the Henslow’s Sparrows safely under the belt (and photographed) at nearby Big Thicket NP by late Sunday morning, I decided to push the envelope and hit up a Bachman’s Sparrow spot about an hour to the north at Sam Rayburn reservoir.
Bachman’s Sparrow, along with Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Brown-headed Nuthatch, is a range-restricted specialist of south-eastern pine forests. However, unlike the woodpecker and nuthatch, it no longer occurs close to Houston – although it is apparently still quite common nearer the Louisiana border.
From my eBird research, one of the closest reliable sites is the entrance road to Ebenezer Park, close to the reservoir spillway. The woods were deathly quiet when I arrived, with hardly a bird to be seen. Wandering up and down the road eventually produced a few Chipping Sparrows and Pine Warblers, a Field Sparrow, a Song Sparrow, and two Brown-headed Nuthatches – expected fare for this kind of habitat. It became clear I would have to enter the forest for a chance of getting my target bird. Expectations were raised when a Bachman’s Sparrow gave a short burst of song, and finally I flushed one out of the understorey which perched up long enough to be identified, but unfortunately wasn’t obliging enough to allow itself to be photographed.
So all in all, a highly successful weekend. I’m running out of “new” winter birds to see within reach of Houston, so I feel a longer-haul trip to the Rio Grande Valley coming on – not to mention the fast-approaching spring migration which is of course legendary in this part of the world!
In mid January, I had a great opportunity to revisit southern Vietnam for the second time in less than four months. My friend Yann Muzika had arranged an 11-day birding and photography tour of the Dalat Plateau and central Annam, with well-regarded guide Duc Tien Bui – did I want to join them in return for a very reasonable contribution towards the costs? With a tempting menu of target birds on offer, including some highly sought-after Laughingthrushes, and the chance to connect with one or two Dalat endemics that I missed last time around, it was an easy decision to make.
I followed up the organized tour with a solo five-day trip to Cat Tien, where I had been once before – nearly a decade ago – and still needed several of the key species from there.
I provide a breakdown of the trip below, in the hope that it will be useful to birders visiting the area, without repeating too much of the general information that is readily available in existing trip reports.
Guide: Duc Tien Bui (firstname.lastname@example.org). Tien is a veteran bird surveyor and tour guide in Vietnam. With a personal Vietnam list well into the 700s, Tien really knows his birds and how to find them. Before our trip, Tien spent several days staking out some of the more difficult species, with the result that we connected with very nearly everything on our target list – including not only seeing the birds, but also creating the opportunities for Yann to take some excellent photos.
Additionally, Tien was patient, calm, and flexible – all the key attributes for an excellent guide. I would not hesitate to recommend him for anyone intending on a south/central Vietnam clean-up.
In Cat Tien, I birded alone, getting information on finding the birds from the internet and also from a guide I met on-site, Bao from Vietnam Wild Tour.
January 17th: met Tien and Yann in the evening in Dalat.
January 18th: early morning at Ta Nung Valley, rest of day at Tuyen Lam lake.
January 19th: all day at Bi Doup National Park.
January 20th: all day at Bi Doup National Park.
January 21st: all day at Ta Nung Valley.
January 22nd: early morning at Ta Nung Valley, then drive to Deo Nui San Pass near Di Linh. Afternoon birding at the pass.
January 23rd: all day at Deo Nui San Pass.
January 24th: early flight from Dalat to Danang. Drive to Lo Xo Pass, birding there until nightfall.
January 25th: early morning at Lo Xo, then drive to Mangden. Late afternoon birding at Mangden.
January 26th: all day at Mangden.
January 27th: all day at Mangden.
January 28th: early morning drive back to Danang to catch afternoon flight to Saigon. I parted company with Tien and Yann at this point.
January 29th: bus to Cat Tien National Park, afternoon birding around resort.
January 30th: all day at Cat Tien.
January 31st: all day at Cat Tien.
February 1st: all day at Cat Tien.
February 2nd: all day at Cat Tien.
February 3rd: bus to Saigon, international flight to Bangkok.
Transportation: Our tour guide Tien arranged two drivers, one for the sites in the Dalat area, and the other for the Lo Xo Pass and Mangden. Both of his drivers drove slowly and safely, which is vitally important on Vietnam’s manic roads.
For Cat Tien, I caught a Dalat-bound Phuong Trang bus from Saigon (195,000VND), and got off at the intersection for Cat Tien – the driver’s assistant will tell you where. From there, a motorbike ride to the national park cost 170,000VND after a lot of haggling. Coming back, I took a taxi from the resort to the intersection (300,000VND), then another Phuong Trang bus to Saigon (200,000VND).
Getting into Cat Tien national park involves crossing the river on a small boat – the park entry fee of 40,000VND includes one return boat ride. If you want to cross the river early, you should buy your entry ticket the evening before at the ticket booth near the boat dock. Multiple tickets can be bought at once if you are planning to visit on several days. Once inside the national park, you can rent a bicycle for 150,000VND per day, but unfortunately the bikes are extremely poorly maintained so get there early to pick a good one. You can rent a jeep and driver to take you around but I didn’t ask about prices. It is also possible to walk to all the key birding areas, but it’s hot and distances are long so take plenty of water.
Dalat: Dreams Hotel in central Dalat. Very good, centrally located, good value option with excellent breakfast included, which was available at 5.30am so ideal for visiting birders. Lots of dining options within a short walk of the hotel – don’t miss One More Cafe for good Western food and some of the best coffee I have ever tasted.
Deo Nui San Pass: Juliet’s Villa Resort, located here.. Good location just 15 minutes drive from the birding area, in a pleasant rural setting. Swimming pool. Water pressure problems in the resort meant having to go without a shower on several occasions, which was annoying. The food was OK and they prepared breakfast early for us.
Lo Xo Pass: Just a night halt in the next town south of the pass, about 25km away. There is one mediocre hotel in the town, with a local restaurant opposite. These did the job, but only that.
Mangden: This ghost town has many hotels, and we were told that most of them are very poorly maintained – given the failure of tourism in this area, hotel owners are reluctant to invest. Our hotel was barely passable, with almost every bathroom fixture broken, a general feeling of damp, and food available only with advance notice. Instead we ate every day at a small restaurant in the center of town (possibly Mangden’s only restaurant) that served uninspiring but very cheap Vietnamese meals, and was conveniently open before 6.00am for breakfast.
Cat Tien: I stayed at the excellent Green Hope Lodge, in the village just across the river from the national park. Breakfast – included in the room price – was available at 5.30am. The first boat across the river to the park leaves just after 6.00am, which I found to be adequate for my needs, but those wishing to make a pre-dawn start would have to stay in the government-run accommodations inside the park.
Weather: Pleasantly warm and sunny in Dalat, with cool early mornings and evenings (high/low temp about 23C/14C). The Central Annam portion of our trip coincided with a record-breaking cold front across East Asia that produced extremely low temperatures and even snowfall in north Vietnam – it was cold, rainy and windy at the Lo Xo Pass (11C/8C), and generally overcast at Mangden with wind and occasional light rain (16C/9C). Meanwhile, in the south, Cat Tien was hot with unbroken sunshine every day (34C/23C).
Ta Nung Valley: This well-known birding location near Dalat is where most people see Grey-crowned Crocias. Access details are available in many trip reports, including my own from September 2015 here. We spent two early mornings and one full day here – more than most birders, but Yann wanted to photograph the elusive Orange-breasted Laughingthrush. This species was particularly hard to find, being not very vocal, and unresponsive to call playback, which has been heavily (over)used at this site. On the last morning, we finally saw and photographed a pair in the small clearing at the edge of the forest, just across the dam at the bottom of the trail. Among 68 bird species we saw at this site were daily Grey-crowned Crocias, 4-5 Rufous-browed Flycatchers coming to worms at stakeouts we set up in the forest for OBL, but just a single sighting of Black-crowned Parrotbill. Bird activity is very high here – sometimes spectacularly so – until about 9.00am, but then quickly tapers to almost nothing.
Tuyen Lam Lake: We spent our time on the trails around the western shore, approximately here. The habitat is a mixture of pine forest interspersed with pockets of broadleaved forest. A nice range of birds and plenty of bird activity throughout the day. We saw our only Vietnamese Crossbills here, and other notable sightings included Red-vented Barbet, Long-tailed Broadbill, Dalat Shrike-Babbler, Red-billed Scimitar-Babbler, and the infrequently recorded Brown Prinia.
Bi Doup National Park:This location is about 50km from Dalat City, on the road to Nha Trang. There isn’t much in the way of accommodation nearby, so we stayed in Dalat. We spent most of our time on a 2km circular trail in the forest, the entrance to which was between Km 47 and Km 48 on the south side of the road. Our guide had spent a considerable amount of time staking out a pair of Collared Laughingthrushes, which did eventually come to our stakeout for photos, but which we didn’t see or hear at all elsewhere in the forest – a difficult species for sure. The forest along the trail was quite birdy, with target species including Yellow-billed Nuthatch, Black-crowned Fulvetta, Hume’s Treecreeper and Spotted Forktail all seen here. We also saw a single Black-hooded Laughingthrush, but this species is much commoner further north at Mangden. A couple of kilometers further up the road, trees at the high point of the pass provided us with our only sighting of Vietnamese Cutia.
Deo Nui San Pass: This location lies to the south of Di Linh, here.. Most of the birding is along the road, which unfortunately can be fairly busy with traffic. A small cafe at the pass is a useful landmark; most of the good birding is within 2km of this cafe heading back towards Di Linh. Several small trails lead into the forest, where we saw and eventually photographed a male Blue Pitta. Other notable species seen here included Indochinese Green Magpie, Black-crowned Parrotbill, Yellow-vented Green Pigeon, Black-chinned Yuhina, and an unexpected flock of 5 White-throated Needletails. At dusk, Grey Nightjars appeared over the road, and we successfully spotlighted a Hodgson’s Frogmouth.
Lo Xo Pass: This spot is about 3.5 hours drive from Danang airport, approximately here. At the high point of the pass, there is a bridge over a waterfall and a basic cafe. 300 meters to the north, a large lone tree can be seen just above the road. Scrub along the roadside between the bridge and the tree is the place to look for Black-crowned Barwing.
Mangden: About 7.5 hours drive from Danang airport, and 5 hours from the Lo Xo pass, Mangden is the only known accessible site for Chestnut-eared Laughingthrush. Forest surrounding the town is being steadily logged, but for now the laughingthrushes – as well as plenty of other birds – can still be seen. Local road 676 heads north out of town, and holds most of the special birds. There is at least one pair of Chestnut-eared Laughingthrushes on each side of the road at the Km 17 marker, which were responsive to call playback but very difficult to see well – there is little chance to see the birds from the road, you have to find a spot to get inside the forest and try your luck. Other excellent birds seen within half a kilometer of this location included Short-tailed Scimitar-Babbler, Austen’s Brown Hornbill, and Indochinese Green Magpie. At other points along the road we had Coral-billed Scimitar-Babbler, Grey-headed Parrotbill and Yellow-billed Nuthatch.
There is another spot worth trying along the new road to Kontum, about 4km from Mangden. A dirt trail heads downhill just before the Km 48 marker, passing through some excellent broadleaved forest which ought to be good for Rusty-naped Pitta as well as many of the area’s specialities. My mid-afternoon visit yielded Black-hooded Laughingthrush, Ratchet-tailed Treepie, Grey-bellied Tesia and Rufous-tailed Robin, and no doubt this is just a taste of what could be seen by birders investing an early morning here.
Cat Tien: The place to try for Orange-necked Partridge is the small hill along the paved road about 2.5km west of the HQ, the partridges are among the dense bamboo thickets alongside the road and responsive to call playback, although luck is needed to get a glimpse. Bar-bellied Pitta and Blue-rumped Pitta can both be seen on the “pitta trail” behind HQ.: walk between the buildings to the right of the museum, bear right past a disused cage, and enter the forest. After 200 meters there is an obvious cleared area on the right hand side of the trail, this is a photographer’s stakeout and patiently waiting here may produce views of one or both pitta species. Germain’s Peacock Pheasant is widespread, I saw it on the “pitta trail” just behind HQ, while others get lucky along the first part of the walking trail to Crocodile Lake – it ought to be possible virtually anywhere in forested areas of the park. Pale-headed Woodpecker is only in one spot, bamboo along the dirt road next to the Heaven Rapids – it is very vocal in early Feb and I saw a pair repeatedly there without difficulty. The park is generally rich in birds and a long species list ought to be possible for those investing enough time and effort.
Key species seen, and their locations:
Orange-necked Partridge – Cat Tien
Green Peafowl – Cat Tien
Germain’s Peacock Pheasant – Cat Tien
Siamese Fireback – Cat Tien
Black Baza – Cat Tien
Mountain Hawk-Eagle – Ta Nung Valley
Rufous-bellied Eagle – Bi Doup and Deo Nui San Pass
Grey-headed Fish Eagle – Bi Doup
Yellow-vented Pigeon – Deo Nui San Pass
Hodgson’s Frogmouth – Deo Nui San Pass
Great-eared Nightjar – Cat Tien
Grey Nightjar – Deo Nui San Pass
White-throated Needletail – Deo Nui San Pass
Silver-backed Needletail – Cat Tien
Austen’s Brown Hornbill – Mangden
Red-vented Barbet – Tuyen Lam Lake, other sites heard only
Annam Barbet – especially Ta Nung Valley
Pale-headed Woodpecker – Cat Tien
Heart-spotted Woodpecker – Cat Tien
Blue Pitta – Deo Nui San Pass
Bar-bellied Pitta – Cat Tien
Dalat Shrike-Babbler – Ta Nung valley, Bi Doup
Indochinese Green Magpie – Deo Nui San Pass, Mangden
Ratchet-tailed Treepie – Mangden
Grey-crowned Tit – all Dalat area sites
Yellow-billed Nuthatch – Bi Doup, Mangden
Hume’s Treecreeper – Bi Doup
Rufous-faced Warbler – Mangden
Kloss’s Leaf Warbler – many sites
White-spectacled Warbler – Ta Nung valley, Bi Doup
Grey-cheeked Warbler – especially Bi Doup
Black-crowned Parrotbill – Ta Nung valley, Deo Nui San Pass
Grey-headed Parrotbill – Mangden
Black-chinned Yuhina – Deo Nui San Pass, Mangden
Grey-faced Tit-Babbler – Deo Nui San Pass, Cat Tien
Coral-billed Scimitar-Babbler – Mangden
Red-billed Scimitar-Babbler – Tuyen Lam Lake, Deo Nui San Pass
Short-tailed Scimitar-Babbler – Mangden
Black-crowned Fulvetta – Bi Doup
Vietnamese Cutia – Bi Doup
Black-hooded Laughingthrush – Bi Doup, Mangden
Orange-breasted Laughingthrush – Ta Nung valley
Collared Laughingthrush – Bi Doup
Chestnut-eared Laughingthrush – Mangden
White-cheeked Laughingthrush – Ta Nung valley, Bi Doup, Deo Nui San Pass
Grey-crowned Crocias – Ta Nung valley
Black-crowned Barwing – Lo Xo Pass
Rufous-browed Flycatcher – Ta Nung valley
Rufous-tailed Robin – Mangden
Spotted Forktail – Bi Doup
Vietnamese Greenfinch – common in Dalat area
Vietnamese Crossbill – Tuyen Lam Lake