Cambodia Feb 11—24, 2010
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. Long may it remain so!
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 Bagan in Burma, Borobodur in Java, and Ayutthaya 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 on 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 foraging in the fields. This sort of experience in Southeast Asia is, sadly, now unique to Cambodia. We also enjoyed 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 four-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.
Our early morning walks in the cool of the day to the trapeangs (water holes) of the woodlands north of the village in search of the amazing Giant Ibis met with great success; we saw good numbers of this leviathan, as well as many other goodies. 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, the spectacular Black-headed Woodpecker, and numerous Burmese Shrikes. The Giant Ibis certainly lived 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 array of woodpeckers, the prehistoric Great Slaty being a particular standout. We enjoyed superb views of the critically endangered and handsome White-shouldered Ibis on a number of occasions. 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 Painted Storks, a Milky Stork, and Asian Openbills perched distantly in the inundated forest.
Our trip to the grasslands of Steung, near the town of Kompong Thom, was fun and rewarding with incredible looks at the often elusive Bengal Florican in the long grass. Further luck with Manchurian Reed-Warblers, Bluethroats, Yellow-breasted Buntings, and others 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, and was a suitable end 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. An outing to an area of evergreen forest (that is, alas, rapidly disappearing) was worthwhile with some outstanding bird sightings, as well as an encounter with one of the world's rarest primates, the gorgeous black-shanked Douc's langur.
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.