Cambodia Mar 02—16, 2014

Posted by Dion Hobcroft


Dion Hobcroft

Dion Hobcroft has been working for VENT since 2001. He has led many tours (more than 170) to Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, Bhutan, Indonesia, India, China, Southwest ...

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Amongst the loveliest of all hotels in Asia is the Angkor Botanical Resort in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The combination of French colonial architecture and furniture, delightful gardens, friendly staff, and refreshingly cool pool makes this a real oasis. It is home to a few birds as well, and we can enjoy such classics as Common Tailorbird, Taiga Flycatcher, Yellow-vented Bulbul, and the occasional Ashy Minivet as we settle in to our comfortable abode.

Spoted Wood-Owl at Ang Trapeang Thmor

Spotted Wood-Owl at Ang Trapeang Thmor— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

On our first full day we explored the World Heritage Angkor Wat, undoubtedly Cambodia’s premier attraction. Translating literally as “City of Temples,” built in the twelfth century, it depicts in great detail classic Hindu stories from the Mahabharata to Ramayana in outstanding Bayon relief carved into the sandstone walls. Here you can see Vishnu astride his Garuda, battling demons as good takes on evil, a recurring theme in many religions. The beautiful monsoon woodlands also support a fine cross section of southeast Asian birds. We enjoyed excellent views of Asian Barred Owlet, Lineated Barbet, Blue Rock-Thrush, Indochinese Cuckoo-shrike, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, and Hainan Blue Flycatcher to mention some. Scrutinizing the ruins of various sites produced a spectacular Tokay Gecko and small colonies of Theobald’s Tomb-Bat. The ruins of Tah Prohm held numbers of Red-breasted and a couple of Alexandrine Parakeets.

Heading west towards the border with Thailand we spent the best part of the next day exploring Ang Trapeang Thmor, an enormous reservoir of freshwater that provides excellent habitat for a good variety of birds. The early part of the morning was spent searching for Sarus Cranes and we were successful in locating ten birds that were scoped well before the heat haze set in. Short grass fields and rice stubble held good numbers of Oriental Pratincole, Singing Bushlark, and Red-throated Pipit, while both Eastern Marsh and stunning Pied harriers quartered the grassland at close range next to us. We continued exploring the more remote areas at the back of the reservoir and had success in locating a small herd of Eld’s Deer, one of the world’s rarest ungulates. This included two stags with their distinctive “bread-basket” antlers.  Best of all was a superb Spotted Wood-Owl that put on an incredible show perched in the open. Yellow Bittern, White-browed Crake, Cotton Pygmy-Goose, Spot-billed Pelican, and a Baya Weaver building its nest rounded out the day.

Manchurian Reed-Warbler at Ang Trapeang Thmor

Black-browed Reed-Warbler at Ang Trapeang Thmor— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

The cool of the next morning was spent birding in the ruins of Beng Mealea, an outlying temple of the Khmer Empire. A fruiting tree produced excellent scope views of Orange-breasted, Thick-billed, and Yellow-footed pigeons, with a pair of both Greater Flamebacks and Oriental Pied Hornbills showing well. A Radde’s Warbler bobbed about in the weedy thickets. We moved onto a site for the scarce White-rumped Falcon and had almost instant success locating the male that allowed a close approach. A Black Baza loped over. As we approached Tmatboey, both Woolly-necked Stork and Lesser Adjutant made an appearance. We took a siesta in the heat of the day amidst a deafening chorus of cicadas. We watched the local kids catching the cicadas with bamboo poles with a plastic bag attached at the end. Once caught, the cicadas were transferred to a plastic bottle to reach their ultimate destination of the frying pan and the dinner plate! In the late afternoon as it cooled we explored the extensive dry woodlands that are bird-rich in this remote location. First we scoped a pair of Great Slaty Woodpeckers—the world’s largest surviving woodpecker. Then we scoped a pair of Brown Boobooks—small compact hawk-owls. We finished the session and the day watching a White-shouldered Ibis sitting tight on its nest. The tree was protected by a metal guard to prevent mongooses from climbing up the tree. It was also posted with a protection notice. This is amongst the world’s rarest wetland birds and it was great to see these conservation measures in place.

White-rumped Falcon (male) en route to Tmatboey

White-rumped Falcon (male) en route to Tmatboey— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

We were up well before dawn the next morning. We were up so early, in fact, that we watched a beautiful Barn Owl go to bed! With anticipation we awaited the crane-like bugling of the Giant Ibis at dawn that would enable us to locate the roost of this “dinosaur.” Sure enough, we heard the powerful song; making a direct beeline cross country we located a pair of Giant Ibis roosting in a dead tree. We placed them in the scope and spent five minutes taking them in before they flew out to forage, never to be seen again. Several sighs of relief could be heard from participants, leader, and ibis guides alike. Lucky us, as the bird has become difficult to locate in recent years. For those not aware, the Giant Ibis disappeared for more than 30 years during the Indochinese wars before being rediscovered in 2000 by camera trap in these remote woodlands. Conservation measures are in place to protect this extraordinary bird, and it takes the skill of the local men to get the birders to the bird!

This was just the start of a great session of morning birding. We followed up with superb views of Brown Fish-Owl and Brown Wood-Owl, bringing our owl list up to seven species. Woodpeckers were also in good form as we enjoyed the beautiful Black-headed Woodpecker, powerful White-bellied Woodpecker, and the not so common Common Flameback. In between were treasures like Blossom-headed Parakeet, Green Imperial-Pigeon, and dapper global scarcities like the Brown Prinia. In the afternoon we targeted the delightful Rufous-bellied Woodpecker and Savannah Nightjar with success, taking in a procession of other species in these bird-rich woodlands from Burmese Shrike to Vinous-breasted Starling, plus a rare great view of the often heard Indian Cuckoo.

Barn Owl, subspecies

Barn Owl, subspecies “stertens,” at Tmatboey— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

On our final morning at Tmatboey we explored the riverine forest habitat and had a great start with a Chinese Francolin in the scope, delivering its scratchy song from a stump. Next up were Stork-billed Kingfisher, Black-capped Kingfisher, Green Sandpiper, and a fine male Red Junglefowl of the nominate subspecies with its white ear patch. Breeding season was in full swing—both Chestnut-headed Bee-eater and Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrike in mating mode, while both Asian Drongo-Cuckoo and a male Violet Cuckoo were intent on looking for hosts. In between were some more high quality birds like Heart-spotted Woodpecker, Large Woodshrike, and Great Iora.

Back to our base at Siem Reap we were to spend the best part of the day exploring the Prek Toal protected wetland of the enormous freshwater lake that flows in to the Mekong River called Tonle Sap. This day is so much better now than it was five years ago, as the protection has allowed an enormous recovery of the wetland birds, and bureaucratic changes enable us to get there early in the morning. Best of all were the Greater Adjutant Storks (frequently maligned as ugly) that allowed mega views. What a beast! Hundreds of Spot-billed Pelicans, Oriental Darters, three species of cormorants, and eleven species of herons (including several Yellow, Cinnamon, and Black bitterns) made the whole place a heaving biomass. We squeezed out a fine female Peregrine Falcon, several Gray-headed Fish-Eagles, a pair of lingering Brown-headed Gulls, and some interesting forest birds like Rufous Woodpecker, Chestnut-winged Cuckoo, Dark-necked Tailorbird, and a good view of a Black-browed Reed-Warbler.

It was farewell to Siem Reap the next morning as we departed early and headed to a protected grassland reserve near the town of Steung. As in Prek Toal, the increased protection has been enormously beneficial to a number of endangered grassland birds, the most famous of which is the Bengal Florican. This year we saw more than 15 birds, including a rarely encountered female, and delighted in watching the males both displaying and in combat mode with competing males. The birding was spectacular as we encountered multiple Small Buttonquail, two Blue-breasted Quail, 15 Sarus Cranes, a Great Spotted Eagle, the second Manchurian Reed-Warbler of the tour, and some superb views of mouse-like Lanceolated Warblers.

Greater Adjutant at Prek Toal

Greater Adjutant at Prek Toal— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

The next morning the birding was somewhat quieter than the previous day, although there were a fair variety of birds as we explored some rice irrigation farmland at Krahm. Hundreds of Baya Weavers hunkered in a weedy thicket and some obliging Pin-tailed Snipe were best. We rescued an Oriental Reed-Warbler caught in some netting and examined it in the hand before releasing it unharmed back into the reedbeds. The afternoon was livelier as we explored a mosaic of rice cultivation and diverse freshwater wetlands near Kratie. White-breasted Waterhen, Watercock, Red Avadavat, Streaked Weaver in breeding plumage, a small flock of Yellow-breasted Buntings (now unfortunately very scarce), and a rare long scope view of a Pallas’s Grasshopper-Warbler were among the great birds on offer.

In the early cool we ventured by boat onto the Mekong River upstream from Kratie. The Irrawaddy Dolphins were in good form and fishing actively around our boat, spitting water, surface lunging, and steering fish as they hunted cooperatively. A pair of Mekong Wagtails allowed a close approach, and exploring a riverine island produced a few pairs of beautiful Small Pratincoles. A Peregrine Falcon was located eating a Little Cormorant on the river bank. We moved to a nearby wet field area and found two pairs of Asian Golden Weavers nesting, the males glowing in breeding plumage. Both Plain-backed Sparrow and Common Iora were nesting in the near vicinity. Now it was time to head east, and after lunch at Snoul we moved towards the Vietnam border to explore the Seima Protection Forest.

Bengal Florican, male

Bengal Florican, male— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

At Seima we spent two mornings and one afternoon birding in some endangered lowland bamboo forest. With patience and persistence we racked up quite a lot of great birds here. Jerdon’s Baza, Gray-faced Buzzard, Germain’s Peacock-Pheasant, White-browed Piculet, Pale-headed Woodpecker, Collared Falconet, Dusky Broadbill, Yellow-bellied Warbler, Gray-faced Tit-Babbler, White-throated Rock-Thrush, and Ruby-cheeked Sunbird were among some of the better birds. We managed to get tantalizingly close to the ultra-shy Orange-necked Partridge on three occasions, but despite patient waiting, well-hidden, we could not get them in binocular range. Bar-bellied Pitta made a brief appearance, but was also extremely shy—a feature of many Indochinese forest birds that have been unrelentingly hunted for thousands of years.

Exploring different sections of the forest produced a pair of Green Peafowl coming in to roost at dusk. Very much a threatened species across its range, it was a delight to see this rare bird so well. We also scoped a beautiful Orange-breasted Trogon, saw a single Great Hornbill in flight, and had excellent studies of Red-vented, Green-eared, and Blue-eared barbets. We also found a small troop of the beautiful Black-shanked Douc, a species of leaf-monkey endemic to Indochina.

Mekong Wagtail near Kratie

Mekong Wagtail near Kratie— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

A morning and afternoon were spent exploring forest patches at Dak Dam right on the border—and at an altitude of 800 meters, refreshingly cooler. It was great birding here. On our first afternoon we had a stunning male Pale-capped Pigeon perched out in the open—a very rare sight. A mega Black-headed Parrotbill gave views right over our heads as it crunched on bark and leaf tangles with its powerful bill. The morning session produced the localized Indochinese endemic, White-cheeked Laughingthrush, one of which was snatched by a female Crested Goshawk. A Lesser Shortwing was drawn up out of its gully refuge and sang powerfully at our feet. A beautiful pair of Silver-breasted Broadbills showed very well indeed. New birds came to the list at a staggering rate including Barred Cuckoo-Dove; Pin-tailed and Ashy-headed green-pigeons; Mountain Imperial-Pigeon; Banded Bay Cuckoo; Annam Barbet; White-bellied Erpornis; White-throated Fantail; Black-headed, Red-whiskered, Black, Ashy, and Gray-eyed bulbuls;  White-tailed Leaf-Warbler; White-browed Scimitar-Babbler; Silver-eared Mesia; Blue-winged Minla; Plain Flowerpecker; and the beautiful and highly distinctive subspecies johnsi of the Black-throated Sunbird.

Our tour concluded in Phnom Penh. Our final bird was the very recently discovered Cambodian Tailorbird, described to science only last year. It popped up immediately to a brief playback and gave great views in a swampy thicket next to the main highway approaching the capital city. It was a great way to finish a great tour. I would particularly like to thank co-leader Narar and his team for making our Cambodia birding adventure such a success.