Cambodia Dec 28, 2006—Jan 09, 2007
Posted by Susan Myers
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 are amongst the first birding groups to marvel at the sight of the almost mythical Giant Ibis and White-shouldered Ibis, and 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 a hidden-away corner of Preah Vihear Province. But other treats like Black-headed Woodpecker, 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. One of the highlights of our stay in Siem Reap was our wonderful hotel, the Angkor Village Resort?surely one of the most pleasant hotels in all of Asia!
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; they ruled 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 terrible roads (albeit much improved since last year), we found the place absolutely teeming with birds! What a treat to watch large flocks of Comb Ducks grazing on the swamps, masses of Lesser Whistling-Ducks, big congregations of Painted and Woolly-necked storks, and a small flock of the rapidly declining sharpii race of Sarus Crane flying across the wetlands. This sort of experience in Southeast Asia is sadly now unique to Cambodia. The lovely Pied Harrier was very evident this year.
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 very exciting birds. But of really special note was a wonderful White-rumped Falcon. Good spot, Nancy! 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 now otherwise very difficult to find or absent elsewhere in the entire region.
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 rewarded with thrilling looks at this highly endangered bird. It lived up to its name?huge, with startling pink legs and subtle grayish wing coverts.
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?on the nest, no less! 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 the very helpful local ladies.
Our next destination, Prek Toal on the Tonle Sap Lake, is 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 a small boat with electric motor to travel quietly up the small streams to a platform overlooking the breeding colonies. We were treated to great views of Greater Adjutants perched distantly in the inundated forest?now only found in Assam and Cambodia.
Our afternoon on the grasslands of Steung, north of Kompong Thom, was fun and rewarding, although only one person was lucky enough to spot an elusive Bengal Florican in the long grass. Compensation came in the form of six Black-necked Storks and the enchanting Red Avadavat. A visit to Krahm, south of Kompong Thom, and a nearby reservoir produced some more fine sightings including Spot-billed Ducks and Garganey, a number of Pintail Snipe, and a swag of waders. From there we journeyed further east to 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.