Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Birding Vietnam (part I)

I am not a birder. But last autumn when I missed the date for signing up for a Sierra Club trip to Vietnam—a place that for some unknown reason I decided I really had to visit—I needed to find an alternate avenue into the country. I've long admired Frans de Waal's Facebook posts of various and sundry fauna, including some spectacular images of Southeast Asian birds. I thought, okay, I'll go bird watching in Vietnam! That'll be fun! So I googled. And up popped a company called, promisingly enough, Wings. It just so happened they had one spot free for a trip in March. I applied.

And so now, here I am in Vietnam, three days into a three-week trip. We are currently at Cuc Phuong National Park, a hundred or so miles south of Hanoi. We've spent two days birding.

Turns out, Vietnam is one of the more challenging countries to bird in. It seems that centuries of local people roasting birds on skewers or sticking them in cages to enjoy their melodious song has made the local avian population a tad skittish. And the chaos of dark jungles doesn't help the viewing.

So we've spent long moments trying to lure birds out into the open, by playing their calls out to them. Birds such as the bar-bellied pitta (Hydrornis elliottii), which looks like this:


Its sounds can be heard here. Although this lovely little bird called back to us, it did not reveal itself.

Here's another, the scaly-breasted partridge (Arborophila chloropus)—which, same outcome:


Here's its call.

And there's the red-headed trogon (Harpactes erythrocephalus):


Beautiful, no? I caught just a glimpse of its red breast hidden behind a branch in the (did I mention this already?) dark jungle foliage. It's really difficult for me to "count" this as a sighting. But I saw more than most of the folks in my group. Here's its call.

I've been quizzing my ten fellow travelers about their "life lists." Dixie is, I believe, the most accomplished, with some 5,500 bird species under her belt. (As one fellow pointed out, she must be in the top ten of women life listers in the United States.) Everyone in the group has some sort of a life list, most in the several thousands. One woman has been on sixty (sixty!) birding trips. These people have some serious time and money, it seems. And a real passion: to see as many birds as possible. Whatever that really means.

Me, I saw several birds today very well, either through my "bins" or through the spotting scope that our local sub-leader, Luan, carries after us. A whole lot of birds I "sort of" saw—flitting around in the greenery. Many we only heard.

Before my trip, I'd joke to friends that I was going on a three-week walking meditation. That is not far off the mark. We walk very slowly, scanning for birdsong and movement. And when someone spots something interesting, we may stand in one place for fifteen, twenty minutes staring into the forest, watching, watching—sometimes with ultimate victory, sometimes not. It's up to the birds.

Today, I simply enjoyed being here, in Vietnam, in the jungle, enjoying this beautiful, delicate, and fairly endangered spot on the planet. And whenever I managed to capture a bird really well in my binoculars and study it: I was in a momentary state of bird bliss. It's not a bad place to be.

And no, I have no intention of starting a life list. I may love lists, but that sort of a birder I will never be.



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