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Dec 012011

8th – 23rd november 2011 – Cambodia and Vietnam – Holiday Report

There’s always something both exciting and frustrating about holidaying somewhere completely different and encountering bird species that are entirely new: exciting because you never quite know what’s around the next corner – and some sightings can be truly spectacular; frustrating because I more often than not cannot be sure enough of its specific identify to list it.

Despite that, my family holiday to south-east Asia in November (accompanied by my wife, son, sister and nephew) still managed to yield a total of almost 60 species, around half of which were ‘lifers’, with another 20 or so being birds I’d seen before but only very rarely … plus a few, like Swallow, Moorhen, Tree Sparrow and Little Grebe that have cropped up several times already on my 2011 list!

In terms of birdwatching, the holiday began brilliantly and went downhill thereafter.  We flew into Siem Riep in Cambodia, via Kuala Lumpur, where we stayed four nights.  The first half of this was spent touring the astonishing ruined complex of Angkor Wat – a city of a million people as long ago as the 11th-12th centuries whenLondon’s population was just approaching 50,000.

This advanced civilisation built some fabulous temples, many of which were adorned with beautifully detailed carvings and script.  Over recent decades, many of these sites have been rediscovered amidst dense forests, where the birdlife was an added bonus during our tours.

My sister (celebrating her 60th birthday) and I had added an extra day in Siem Riep so we could take in a nearby bird sanctuary – Prek Toal, part of the huge Tonle Sap lake that is around 100km long and 30km wide.  We saw 25-30 species on that day alone – possible highlights being Spot-billed Pelicans, Asian Openbills and Grey-headed Fish Eagles among a good array of herons, egrets and cormorants, including the distinctive Darter.

Bird-watching became more of a snatched or very occasional activity during the rest of the tour which took in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, a day or so navigating through the Mekong Delta to Can Tho and, finally, Saigon, the major city in southern Vietnam – a fast-growing metropolis of 10 million people that seems to be a driver’s nightmare, though we were assured the apparent mayhem was normal and that everyone knew ‘the rules’.

We finished the holiday with four days at a beach resort, 200km north east of Saigon.  While initially a blissful respite from the relentless pace of touring and constant early morning get-aways, I eventually concluded this was a mistake – both from the point of view of birdwatching, which was very limited, and in failing to enhance our ‘Asian experience’ since the five-mile strip of hotels, restaurants and impromptu retail outlets could have been anywhere in the world.

Indeed, if you ever go to Indochina – and I would certainly recommend Cambodia (and I gather the pace of life in Laos is equally, if not more ‘relaxed’) – and want to include Vietnam, aim to take in the central highlands and more northern parts, since that is where we were constantly being told the best wildlife is to be found.

As it was, we had good views of Green and Blue-tailed Bee-eaters throughout the region, and other highlights included four species of Kingfisher (Pied, Collared and White-throated as well as Common), raptors such as Brahminy and Black-shouldered Kites, Eastern Marsh Harrier and two Ospreys, colourful ‘firsts’ such as Coppersmith Barbet, Red-breasted Parakeet, Indian Roller, Ashy Drongo and Yellow-vented Bulbul, and the Large-tailed Nightjar (bigger than those we find in Britain) that I virtually tripped over during an early-morning walk from our beach resort.

The remaining ‘cast’ in order of appearance, and not already mentioned, were as follows: Black Drongo, Brown Shrike, Intermediate Egret, Common Myna, Rock Dove, Asian Palm Swift, Grey Heron, Racket-tailed Drongo, Spotted Dove, White-vented Myna, Magpie Robin, Javan Pond Heron, Little Heron, Little Cormorant, Greater Coucal, Pied Fantail, (Great) Cormorant, Indian Cormorant, Whiskered Tern, Red Collared Dove, Great White Heron, Rufous Woodpecker, Spot-billed Duck, Oriental Skylark, Peaceful Dove, Large-billed Crow, Asian Koel, White-rumped Munia, Olive-backed Sunbird, Pacific Swallow, White Wagtail, Plain-backed Sparrow, Scaly-breasted Munia, Oriental Turtle Dove and Paddyfield Pipit.

Gary Atkins – Nov 2011

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