Cambodia Feb 01—13, 2006
The attractions of Cambodia are many—the magic of Angkor Wat, the rare and recently rediscovered birds that can still be found in many parts of the country, and the marvelous rural landscapes that evoke childhood memories of an imagined exotic Southeast Asia. Only a few years ago the country was off-limits, and these birds remained unknown to the outside world; now we were amongst the first birding groups to marvel at the sight of the almost mythical Giant Ibis and White-shouldered Ibis, among many others. One of the attractions for a birder visiting Cambodia is the chance to observe in the wild some of the rarest birds in the world. The really special bird of this trip is the Giant Ibis, which survives in good numbers in the hidden-away corner of Preah Vihear Province. But other treats like Black-headed Woodpecker, Small Buttonquail, White-shouldered Ibis, and Pale-capped Pigeon are very enticing! The remarkable Tonle Sap Lake and its surroundings support large breeding populations of Greater Adjutant, Sarus Crane, Milky Stork, and Bengal Florican—birds that are approaching extinction elsewhere in Asia. This small country supports a remarkable 24 threatened bird species—a testament to the extent and quality of the forests, grasslands, and wetlands. Long may it remain so!
Our journey started in Bangkok, with a morning visit to the saltpans of Khok Kam. Here we met up with Mr. Tee, a local man working hard to protect the habitat of the many waders and waterbirds that find a haven here. A very enjoyable morning of wader-watching was followed by a brief flight to Siem Reap in Cambodia's west. The next morning we explored the simply amazing ruins of the ancient city of Angkor, set in forest featuring remarkably large trees and wonderful congregations of birds. Large and noisy flocks of parakeets vied for our attention with a host of forest birds and wonderful views of the temples. Angkor is one of the great archaeological sites of Southeast Asia, along with Pagan, Borobodur, and Ayuthaya. This magnificent reminder of an empire that shaped the entire region is now a major attraction for visitors to Cambodia. The Khmer Empire flourished for three centuries from 800 to 1100 AD, ruling over most of Burma, Laos, central Vietnam, and the Malay Peninsula.
Ang Trapeang Thmor is an extensive area of wetlands centered around a thousand-year-old reservoir. After a rough drive on the worst road in Cambodia, we found the place absolutely teeming with birds! What a treat to watch large flocks of Comb Ducks grazing on the swamps, and congregations of the rapidly declining Sharpii race of Sarus Crane walking across the grasses. This sort of experience in Southeast Asia is, sadly, now unique to Cambodia.
The highlight of our tour was undoubtedly our journey into the remote parts of northern Cambodia for our two-night stay in the tiny and rustic village of Tmatboey. Our travels on dirt roads into the interior were punctuated with frequent stops for many exciting birds! The very attractive Rufous-winged Buzzard is still delightfully common in the dry dipterocarp forests of this area. In fact, these are easily the best and most extensive dry dipterocarp forests surviving in Asia; this explains the presence of many of these species that are otherwise very difficult to find or absent elsewhere in the entire region. Other moments of excitement included a large flock of Crested Treeswifts drinking from a small dam, a low-flying and simply lovely Black Baza, pocket-sized Collared Falconets, and countless numbers of the common, but nevertheless gorgeous Indian Roller. On arrival in Tmatboey we still had a bit of time for some late afternoon birding and, much to our delight, we were soon marveling at superb scope views of the critically endangered and very handsome White-shouldered Ibis!
Up and at it early again the next morning, we made our way out to the Trapeangs (water holes) of the woodlands north of the village. Walking through these bird-rich forests was a magical experience, as we encountered numerous species that are so rarely seen outside Cambodia these days: more Rufous-winged Buzzards, Lesser Adjutants, Chinese Francolin, Pale-capped Pigeons, Yellow-legged Green-Pigeons, Black-headed Woodpeckers, and numerous Burmese Shrikes. Of course, despite all these most welcome distractions, we mainly had one bird in mind—the amazing Giant Ibis! After much searching, we were all eventually rewarded with thrilling looks at this highly endangered bird. It lives up to its name—huge, with startling pink legs and subtle grayish wing coverts. In the evening we returned to our simple but very comfortable lodge to enjoy a most welcome cold beer and a delicious meal prepared by our two lovely cooks.
Our next destination, Prek Toal on the Tonle Sap Lake, was yet another very special place. This reserve, located on the southern shores of the enormous Tonle Sap, is one of the largest waterbird colonies in Asia. After a long boat ride over the vast lake, we arrived in the core area and transferred to small canoes before paddling quietly up the small streams to the platforms overlooking the breeding colonies. We soon found a pair of nesting Milky Storks—with a world population of perhaps 5,000 individuals, it now survives only in Sumatra, Java, and Cambodia. We were also treated to great views of Greater Adjutants in flight over the inundated forest, and now only found in Assam and Cambodia.
A day out on the grasslands of Kompong Thom was disappointing, as we missed out on the elusive Bengal Florican, but compensation came in the form of a cooperative Manchurian Reed Warbler, four Black-necked Storks (completing our list of seven storks!), and flocks of the enchanting Red Avadavat. A visit to a nearby reservoir produced some more fine sightings including Spot-billed Ducks and Garganey, a lovely Pied Harrier, Oriental Pratincoles, a number of Pintail Snipe, and a swag of waders. From here we journeyed further east for an overnight stay in Kompong Cham before heading into Kratie on the banks of the mighty Mekong River. Taking a boat out onto the river, we soon found the delightful Mekong Wagtail, the river's only known endemic bird. A pod of friendly Irrawaddy dolphins quietly cavorted around us as we made our way back to the shore—a very suitable end to our birding in this wonderful country.
This remarkable country is an absolute joy!