Up close with the Bare-faced Bulbuls (Lao PDR for the time –pressured birder)
John Gregory and Pete Antrobus (Pod)
4th to 7th September 2009
Having had to cancel a couple of birding trips due to work commitments and looking for somewhere to go in September I read, with great interest, the breaking news of the discovery of a new species of Bulbul in the Karst areas of central Lao PDR.
On further investigation it looks like the birds were found in parallel by a team of researchers working near Pha Lom in Savannakhet Province (Woxwold, Duckworth and Timmins – OBC Forktail 25 2009) and by Stijn De Win in the Northern Khammouane Mountains at Na Hin.
is excellent and a must for anyone thinking of planning a trip here. The report persuaded me to visit Na Hin due to the added bonus of Sooty Babbler , Red-collared Woodpecker (possibly the most difficult Asian Woodpecker) and an outside chance of seeing the endangered Lao Langur. The appeal of being one of only a handful of birders on the planet to have seen the bulbul helped my decision.
September is purportedly the rainy season so flights were still relatively cheap when we booked in mid- August.
For birders wishing to travel independently this report should be used as an addendum to Stijn’s website. Alternatively Birding2asia is offering guided tours - take your pick!
Na Hin is a great and under-explored area with large tracts of untouched broad-leaved evergreen forest. However, construction of a hydro-electric scheme does seem to have put some pressure on the area – hopefully only temporary.
This was our first taste of birding in Lao PDR ; it certainly won’t be the last. We can only echo Stijn’s comments re Lao still being relatively under-explored. Apparent large tracts of forest remain further south for those intrepid birders who enjoy exploring new areas.
Flights, Ground Transport and Accommodation
We investigated routings from Manchester to Vientiane but could not find anything cheaper than Ł850. However Etihad had a flight (Manchester to Bangkok) for Ł380. On arriving in Bangkok we took a Thai Airways flight to Udon Thani (Ł35) and then took a taxi to Nong Khai and the FriendshipBridge on the Thai/Lao border (200 Bhts per person). You will need a passport photo for your Lao Visa; if you forget (as we did) you can get them on the Thai side of the border. The Visa is available at the border ($35). We then got a bus over the FriendshipBridge (15Bhts) and found ourselves in the Lao PDR.
For Ground Transport we took advice from the Lonely Planet guide and took the easiest and probably the most expensive option of hiring a car and driver. The options quoted in the guide are:
Asia Vehicle Rental http://www.avr.laopdr.com and Lao Wheels email@example.com . Asia vehicle rental had no availability so we just had one quote of $110 per day from Lao Wheels. This price included fuel, toll fees and the driver’s food and accommodation. The job was sub-contracted to a chap named ‘Tong’ who spoke reasonable English:
Mobile: +856 205 088151
We probably paid over the odds; we managed to negotiate Tong down to $90/day with little effort.
Tong now knows the sites for the Bulbul, Babbler, Woodpecker and Langur plus he can direct you to a reasonable hotel.
Roads were pretty good with a few potholes here and there; in hindsight it would probably be very easy to hire a vehicle and make your own way to Na Hin or get dropped off and hire a motor cycle for your stay at Na Hin. It’s easy to find by following route 13 out of Vientiane for about 4 hours before turning left onto route 8 at Ban Vieng Kham. From this junction it is about 60-90 minutes to Na Hin.
A disturbing sight on this road are trucks containing cages of half dead dogs. Tong informed us that these are raised in Thailand before being transported through Lao to Vietnam for food!!
To exit Lao we took a Thai taxi from the Lao side of the border direct to a hotel in Udon Thani (450Bht each).
An update to Stijn’s report is that the village of Na Hin is developing into a small town driven by the hydro-electric construction work taking place above km 44. Many new restaurants and hotels/guesthouses appear to have been built over the last couple of years. Mi Thuna guesthouse was fully booked; we stayed at the newly built Phamaanview Guesthouse with clean and spacious rooms (1 twin-350Bht per night).
Phone: +85620 2403950/2806235
We ate in most of the local restaurants – fried rice or noodle soup is always a safe bet. We did find the local food (Laap) very tasty (if at times a little undercooked) and the fried fish was delicious!
Should you wish to contact us:
Phone: +44 7768 235999
Day by day….
During our time at Na Hin we saw no rain but it was extremely hot and humid. Birding was normally finished by 1.30 and didn’t really pick up in the afternoon.
3rd Sept 2009
Arrive in Vientiane at 1pm. Leave at 3pm and arrive at Na Hin at 9.30pm.
4th Sept 2009
Late start and straight up to the viewpoint at km 32.8 - marked by a wooden shelter. Stijn’s map shows another viewpoint at km 34 – birding along this road to km 36 should get you Sooty Babbler and more Bare-faced Bulbuls.
Our first Bulbuls responded to tape (downloaded from Xeno-Canto) at around 7.30am. By 11 it was too hot for birding outside the forest. Between 3.30pm and dusk we walked the weather station trail (Trail 1) but saw very little due to the heat. The weather station and the primary forest beyond are at around 765m asl.
5th Sept 2009
Up at 3.30 for some pre-dawn night birding on trail 3 (see Stijn’s Map) where we had great views of a Mountain Scops Owl.
At dawn we headed up Trail 1 again for good views Speckled and White-browed Piculets in the cutover forest before reaching the weather station. By the time we made the primary forest where Stijn saw Red-collared Woodpecker it was pretty birdless and the Cicadas deafening.
We spent the afternoon on the temple and waterfall trails but extreme heat again precluded much activity. The only birds of note were a single Drongo Cuckoo and a few Nepal House Martins. We went back to km 35 at dusk where we had seen birds mobbing something in a hole in the cliff earlier in the day. We had hopes of a Forest Eagle Owl appearing – unfortunately a no show!
6th Sept 2009
Up at the Woodpecker site by 6.30am. This time we found a different woodcutter’s trail to the one marked on Stijn’s map. It runs parallel and to the left of Stijn’s trail – we picked it up about 50m in from the weather station trail and followed it for around 300m over a small coll and down a ridge where it ended at a sawing area – a deep ravine ran parallel to the path.. We had a better day despite dipping on the woodpecker again. A pair of Chestnut – bellied Nuthatchs were below their normal altitudinal range, small parties of Spot-necked babblers and Rufous - throated Fulvettas gave tantalising views and a pair of White-tailed Robin skulked in the ravine.
We spent from 5 to 7pm in the cultivated areas south of Na Hin where we saw our only herons of the trip, a Chinese Goshawk, Black – shouldered Kite and Large –tailed Nightjar. The Long-tailed Shrikes caused some confusion due to their short tails – on further research these may turn out to be Lanius scach scach?
7th Sept 2009
Back to 32.8 at dawn for our last fill of the Bulbul and Sooty Babbler. We then experienced probably the best part of our trip. A male Lao Langur casually strolled along the spiky crags about 500m away and then sat on the top of a rock taking in the early morning sun for at least a half hour shifting position occasionally and giving great scope views. We got some (very!) record shots and on the stroll down the road and took some shaky video of Sooty Babbler. We left our hotel at 10 and arrived in Udon Thani at 4pm.