Cambodia Jan 17—Feb 03, 2008
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, as well as 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.
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!
We started our Cambodia sojourn by exploring 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 in Burma, Borobodur in Java, and Ayuthaya in Thailand. 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 (despite advice to the contrary, the roads are not one little bit improved since last year), we found the place absolutely teeming with birds! We watched masses of Lesser Whistling-Ducks, big congregations of Painted and Woolly-necked storks, and a sensational 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, and we had good, long views of some skulking crakes and warblers, as well as delightful Pheasant-tailed and Bronze-winged jacanas.
The highlight of our tour was undoubtedly our journey into the remote parts of northern Cambodia for our three-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 pleasingly 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. The highly sought-after White-rumped Falcon showed exceptionally well, as we had close views of three different individuals.
Our early morning walks in the cool of the day to the trapeangs (waterholes) of the woodlands north of the village in search of the amazing Giant Ibis met with great success; we saw not only good numbers of the leviathan, but many other goodies as well. 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. The Giant Ibis certainly lives up to its name—huge, with startling pink legs and subtle, grayish wing coverts. We spent time looking at well-hidden Spotted Wood-Owls and an incredible 11 species of woodpeckers, the prehistoric Great Slaty being a particular standout. On another morning we marveled at superb scope views of the critically endangered and handsome White-shouldered Ibis on their roosting trees. In the evening we returned to our simple but 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 Painted Storks and Asian Openbills perched distantly in the inundated forest, although we had bad luck with some terrible weather on this particular day.
Our trip to the grasslands of Steung and Krahm, near the town of Kompong Thom, was fun and rewarding with incredible and multiple looks at the often elusive Bengal Florican in the long grass. Further luck with Black-necked Storks, Bluethroats, Yellow-breasted Buntings, and the enchanting Red Avadavat made this a memorable birding site. Next we journeyed further east to Kratie, a small, sleepy town 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, as well as Small Pratincole and a number of other goodies. A pod of friendly Mekong River dolphins quietly cavorted around us as we made our way back to the shore—a suitable ending to our boat trip. An afternoon outing to some nearby rice paddies was also rewarding and enjoyable, as we got to grips with a swag of prinias and some surprisingly cooperative Chestnut-capped Babblers.
After a brief respite in Phnom Penh, we relocated to the southeast near the border with Vietnam for some birding around the saltpans and a night in Kep before journeying up the mountain to Bokor. After some drama and a not-so-pleasant trip up to the plateau (due to the government unexpectedly closing all access to the national park, leading to some frantic negotiations and plotting on the part of the leaders!), we made it to our rather uninspiring accommodation for a couple of days of birding. Fortunately the food was great! The plateau was quiet, but we nevertheless had some interesting records. The birding in the hill forests on our trip back down the mountain was a highlight of the trip though, with Wreathed and Great hornbills, Mountain Hawk-Eagle, Banded Bay Cuckoo, and many other evergreen forest birds.
Special thanks to you all for your great company and companionship on this thoroughly enjoyable tour. Thanks also to Laurant for his excellent organization. Our excellent drivers again proved to be indispensable.