May 3, 2013 by Rokman61
George and I landed in Ho Chi Minh City late in the evening of March 8th. By 5 am the next morning we were boarding a van for our first excursion – such is ‘birding’. Our destination was the famous Mekong Delta, and our targets were shorebirds (sandpipers and such).
The Mekong Delta is huge! At about 100 kms across, it is approximately 3 times the width of our own impressive Fraser Delta. The Mekong shoreline zone is a seemingly endless area of mudflats, very much like our Boundary Bay shorebird habitat, but nearly ten times as long. To set the scene, the yellow ‘X’ on the right side of this satellite image of the delta shows where we spent several hours walking barefoot over the mud.
On arrival, we learned that the tidal flats are effectively one humongous clam farm. The whole area we saw was marked off into thin strips, presumably indicating each clammer’s plot. Scattered around as far as we could see were rudimentary shacks on tall stilts. Apparently the clams are gathered whilst the tide is low, the clammers then wait out the high tide in their shacks, and the clams get washed by the tidal currents.
We did see many shorebirds, in impressive variety. Unfortunately most were quite distant – visible with the aid of binoculars and telescope, but too far away for quality photographs.
Our main target was one of those ‘Grail Birds’, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. This little bird nests in only a few locations in north-eastern Russia along the Bering Sea, and as far as is known, there are likely no more about a hundred breeding pairs in existence. In winter they appear locally on mudflats all over Southeast Asia. This makes them an extremely difficult species to see and hence a special objective for ultra-serious birders. (Interestingly, I was the only one of our group for which this would not be a ‘Lifer’: as it happens, the Spoonbill has turned up only once in North America, that being in Vancouver in 1976 – and I there). Our guide Bao had located a few of them on the Mekong, and was eager to show us this prize. We walked and walked and peered and scoped through flocks of birds, but alas the target was nowhere in sight. Eventaully we had to leave, as the tide was coming in, and it moves fast! Just then Boa finally spotted two of the little guys – quite far off but decent looks for all and no doubt about their identity. Our retreat through the on-rushing tide was, in a word, adventuresome.
I have no photos of the Spoonbills, but this short video tells the story nicely.
Of the numerous shorebirds we saw, one species was particularly special to me. The Lesser Sand-plover is a species that has only twice been recorded in BC, and only once in Vancouver. That was on July 12, 2007, and I was the one who found it. This ranks as the biggest discovery of my birding career, and unlikely to ever be topped. The species was formerly called the Mongolian Plover, but for some reason those in charge decided to rename it, burdening the classy little critter with a most pedestrian handle. Lesser indeed! Unforgivable! Here is a photo of that bird, taken by my friend Ilya, through my telescope.
Meanwhile, back on the Delta, Mongolians were fairly common, although not in their spiffy breeding plummage.
I have only one other bird photo from the mudflats that is perhaps worthy of presenting here. This sky-full of Great Knots shows a portion of an impressive flock of about 600 birds.
Moving on: OK, so I got a bit carried away to this point, but I promise to be more succinct for the rest of this blog.
I found that bird photography was very challenging throughout the tour. Obviously, one cannot expect the entire group to hold back and wait until the camera folk fiddle with their equipment and try to compose killer shots. But more than that, the birds were almost always too distant, and I returned with innumerable shots of tiny specks. I present here some of my better results. Most are severely cropped, and some are essentially ‘documentary’ images, serving mainly to help me remember the occasion and convince myself that I actually saw the bird!
The avifauna of Asia features a number of families of birds that do not occur in the Americas, so they were brand new and exciting for me. One such group is the bulbuls, a large and varied assortment of interesting and attractive birds. This one is a Black Bulbul – note the fine punk hair-do.
This one is a Black-and-red Broadbill, representative of a small but very colourful group.
Barbets are rather chunky birds with mostly green bodies and garishly multi-coloured heads. They look to me like something you might expect from a primary-school art class. The first one is the Annum Barbet, and the second a Golden-throated.
This one is a fairly rare regional endemic – our guide was quite pleased that he could find it for us. A crummy photo, but apparently we were fortunate enough just to observe a Vietnamese Cutia.
I was impressed at how many species there were that are mostly blue in colour. This Verditer Flycatcher for example.
The most common waterbird we saw was the Chinese Pond Heron. When on the ground, they are streaky brown colour, which blends in with the habitat. But when they take flight, huge white wings appear. At first I thought I was seeing two completely different species.
Trogons are colourful tropical birds of which there are quite a few species in Central America, and only a comparative few in Asia. But any trogon is a good find – this is the Red-headed Trogon. Note the red breast and brown head – go figure.
One of the biggest attractions of birding in America is the annual appearance of migrating wood warblers – small, active, and very colourful little birds, sometimes described as the jewels or flowers of the avian world. These are not found in Asia; instead they have many of their own ‘warblers’, about a hundred species occurring just in southeast Asia. The difficulty is that they all come in shades of green to brown, with subtle variations, and all look very much the same! Here is one example, the Kloss’s Leaf-Warbler.
Hummingbirds are another group that is strictly New World. Elsewhere, the closest equivalent is sunbirds which, like hummers, are nectar feeders, and every bit as colourful. Mrs. Gould’s Sunbird is a typical example.
Since there are nearly 10,000 species of birds world-wide, it’s no surprise that some of them would have interesting names. Here are a few of my favourites that we encountered on the tour. Best to read them aloud to fully appreciate their timbre.
One wonders . . . does the Adjutant get only the most menial tasks? Does the Nuthatch get less than its due? Does the Cisticola have a complexion problem? Does the Spiderhunter seek out the smallest spiders? What fun to be on the naming committee.
I particularly like the hyphenated, four-barreled names, like on the pair of Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters mentioned previously.
Sorry, got a bit carried away again. Moving on . . .
Shrikes are world-wide in occurrence, with more species in Asia than what we are used to at home. This cutie is the most common, a Burmese Shrike.
We were hoping to see some cranes, but this was the only ‘flock’ we could find.
Southeast Asia is blessed with a liberal selection of woodpeckers, many of them quite striking, but typically are too shy for photo ops. Here are two species I did manage to catch.
First the Great Slaty – the world’s largest woodpecker, half-a-metre tall! This pair was very noisy and active, staying well up in the tree-tops. The throats are yellow, and a small patch of red directly below the eye on the lower bird identifies the male.
And this is purportedly the world’s smallest woodpecker, the White-browed Piculet. At about 9 cm long, it’s not much bigger than how it appears on a desk-top monitor.
Now one of THE prize birds of the tour. Pittas are tropical ground-dwellers that tend to be so secretive that they are sometimes described as ‘mythical’ by birders frustrated by never having seen one. Hence the photo I obtained below begs some explanation. These birds are so sought after that local guides have learned to habituate them by regularly providing meal worms at a chosen site. Photographers come from around the world, and hire the guide to take them out, where they sit for hours in sweltering heat in a small camo tent, dressed in camo from head to foot, waiting behind their monstrous lenses. When you see stunning images of wildlife in the likes of National Geographic, this is how it is done. One party had just finished a photo session when we came to the site, and they invited us to take some photos of our own. Presenting the elegant and subtly beautiful Blue-rumped Pitta.
I’ll finish off this blog with a change-of-pace. Since I do not know the identity of any of these, I will just present them.
Cambodia coming next.