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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Cambodia, March 25 - 30, 2006, ,
This reports covers sites for the White-shouldered and Giant Ibis, Bengal Florican and Mekong Wagtail in Cambodia.
Access to Cambodia is easy and no one should be intimidated to plan a visit – there are many flights from Bangkok and Singapore to the main tourist destination of Siem Reap, which is the closest airport to the famed Angkor Wat. Visas are available upon arrival at Siem Reap, however the payment of US 20 must be made in US cash, and you must also have a passport sized photo available. US cash is widely used in Cambodia; we exchanged US 40 into Cambodian riel and that was plenty. Our itinerary had us departing from Phnom Penh, where there was a US 25 departure tax, so they really do get you coming and going. I do not know if a similar sized departure tax applies in Siem Reap. Bottled water is widely available in Cambodia and should always be used; food is surprisingly bland.
We had visited Cambodia previously because of our Thai residency, so we immediately left on our birding trip upon arrival. However, no trip to Cambodia is complete without a full day spent visiting the temples complexes of Angkor Wat and the surrounding areas. The birds there can be quite good as well.
Cambodia is relatively virgin birding territory but that is certain to change. The infrastructure is improving, for example reducing what had been all-day drives to a few hours. Local people are being trained to understand eco-tourism and to provide basic services. Guides are being trained and tour groups are setting up itineraries for birders – we used Monsoon Tours to coordinate our details. A recent article (Clements) provides tantalizing details about the ibis locations that will certainly encourage birders to consider Cambodia as a destination.
It is possible to visit Kampong Thom and Kratie without using a tour agency, but it is almost impossible to do so for Tmatbaey. When visiting Tmatbaey, be sure that the vehicle you use is a 4WD with lots of clearance. Our guide in Tmatbaey told us that one group showed up with a regular sedan and they could not get close to the ibis sites, and spent lots of time simply walking to the sites; consequently they did not see the ibises.
Day 1. Arrived 8AM from Bangkok, moved through Immigration smoothly, met by a representative of Monsoon Tours. After picking up water and supplies and changing currency, we left Siem Reap at 10AM, on our way to Tmatbaey, the village nearest the ibises. A 10th century temple complex of Koh Ker was along the way, and had been recommended for a stop in other trip reports, but we were anxious to get to Tmatbaey to maximize our time trying for the ibises. At Koh Ker, as at most places in Cambodia unless an area has been obviously cleared, it is prudent to stay on roads or paths because of extensive use of mines during the Khmer Rouge period.
We arrived at Tmatbeay at 2PM. Our accommodation was a large house that held 8 beds and a cooking area; this was apparently quite new and was built specifically for this purpose. The previous approach had visitors rotating among various villagers’ homes. Each bed had a foam mat, sheet, and a mosquito net. Malaria is endemic here so reasonable precautions apply. There is no electricity in the village, so the only power comes from batteries. We had lunch, and at 3PM left with our local Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) guide, Hong, to look for Great and White-shouldered Ibis. We drove about 6 km over a very rough road to a protected area, then walked and stopped at several overgrown pools, or trapeangs, where the Great Ibis sometimes land. Some have hides for viewing, but none had ibis. We then moved along to a site for the White-shouldered Ibis. Apparently this is a very reliable bird. We went to a site near an open field. Hong said he expected the birds to arrive at 5:15PM. At 5:05PM, we heard the characteristic honking call as four White-shouldered Ibis flew out of the distant forest towards us, banked away, and landed on a dead tree, soon to be joined by two others.
It was a great relief to see these ibises and we returned to the house for supper. However, we soon realized we had a problem. It was Saturday night, and there was a wedding in the village. Music was playing – loudly. Even with earplugs, sleep was a challenge until the music stopped at 1:30AM. In addition, during the night the temperature did not seem to drop.
Day 2. At breakfast at 5AM, it was apparent no one had slept well. A local village ranger joined our WCS guide and we went to another area for Giant Ibis, again driving several kilometers over rough roads and then walking from trapeang to trapeang. To make a long story short, it was very hot, we walked a very long way, and by 10 AM it was 40+ C and we had not seen anything of interest. We took a lunch break back at the house, then went back out at 2PM, drove and walked to other many other locations visiting trapeangs, this time with two local rangers. Finally, at 5:30PM, we had great luck: two Giant Ibis flushed from a trapeang onto a dead tree, and perched in a spot where we could view them through my scope but where we were hidden by some trees. We watched them literally as dusk fell. We struggled back to the truck before nightfall. We were literally dead tired. We visited about 15 trapeangs before seeing these birds and covered many kilometers in extreme heat; lots of drinking water is necessary..
No wedding but more music that night as well. Apparently this village really likes music. Bring very good earplugs. Fortunately, the music stopped by 11PM, the temperature dropped, and we slept well. We gave Hong a US 30 donation per person for seeing the ibises which goes to the local village development fund. According to the record book, from 1/1/2005 to our trip, 33 visitors had come to Tmatbaey so they are receiving significant revenue to encourage them to keep the ibis sites protected.
Day 3. We were up early to look for birds we had not seen during the previous two. Even birds others have noted as common, such as Black-headed Woodpecker, had not been at all common, perhaps because of the intense heat. However, this morning we went to a site that was quite birdy, with many woodpeckers and other species and we saw quite a few birds in a short period. We left for Kampong Thom at 9AM, arriving 2PM, on good roads. The Stueng Sen Hotel is very nice, with good air conditioning. However, due to some mis-communication, we did not have any birding lined up for this afternoon.
Day 4. We were up at 5AM to look for Bengal Florican at Kruos Kraom, which is 30 minutes south of town. We picked up our local WCS guide en route. The floricans have specific territories and therefore are often easy to locate, but it took us until 8AM to find three males strutting in the most distant field. However, we were rewarded with good views. Unfortunately, our guide had no idea about where to look for other birds we were interested in, such as Manchurian Reed-warbler, and our driver was insistent we had to leave to go to Kratie. So, after giving our WCS guide the US 10/person donation for preserving the florican habitat, we left this area sooner than we would have liked, and proceeded to Kratie, arriving at 4PM. We stayed at the Mekong Dolphin Resort, nice air-conditioned lodges overlooking the Mekong River.
Day 5. We left at 6AM to drive an hour to the area where the Irriwaddy dolphins are found. This is also where the Mekong Wagtails are found; however, none of the boatsmen knew anything about a wagtail and none wanted to take us to see one. This is where our driver from Monsoon Tours really helped us; after much discussion, and a promise to pay for extra fuel if this turned into a major expedition, he convinced one of boatsmen to head up the river to look for Mekong Wagtail. Only about 10 minutes and 200 meters up the river, on a sand bar, we saw one adult and then a juvenile fly in. We then went back down to watch the very unusual dolphins. Left Kratie at 9AM, arrived Phnom Penh at 3PM, checked into the 5-star Phnom Penh Hotel, end of trip.
Even when using a tour company such as Monsoon Tours, who many recommend as the best for birders, a lot of advance preparation is required. I understand that there is one excellent birding guide, Frederic Goes, available, based in Siem Reap. The WCS guide and local rangers in Tmatbaey were very knowledgeable, but our WCS guide in Kampong Thom knew the Bengal Florican and little else. This is not so surprising; birding is a very new concept. In retrospect, when I received my itinerary from Monsoon Tours, I should have been absolutely clear that I wanted to schedule birding the afternoon of Day 3 at Stung (this grassland area between Siem Reap and Kamphong Thom is apparently a good afternoon site) and that we needed the entire morning of Day 4 in the Kampong Thom area.. We had hoped to see some passage migrants such as Oriental Plover, which does come through Cambodia in March, but were not successful, and more time on these days in this habitat would have helped.
A particular challenge when outlining an itinerary is that the time between locations is not clear. Major roads are paved, but we were often on dirt roads where the conditions could change dramatically with weather. So the driver, who wants to be sure to arrive at the destination on time, wants to leave as soon as possible; the birder wants to stay as long as possible. But no one wants to get stuck on a road after dark, and many of these roads are not well-travelled. Tmatbaey, for example, has no cars or trucks – getting stuck there means manpower or animal power to get you out.
The transit times we experienced were: Siem Reap to Tmatbeay – 4 hours, good roads for the first half, then gradually worse; the last hour just sandy/dirt paths. They would be impassable in rainy weather. Tmatbaey to Kamphong Thom – 5 hours on good roads except for the first hour or so leaving Tmatbaey. Kamphong Thom to Kratie – 5 hours of driving and 1 hour lunch break, mostly good roads but about one hour of two stretches of terrible potholed dirt roads through rubber plantations - short cuts that our driver insisted saved lots of distance but could not have saved much time at the speed we had to go. With rain these would have been much worse. Kratie to Phnom Penh – there is a major road, but again our driver took a short cut, the total driving time was 5 hours with a 1-hour lunch break en route.
A trip to visit the Milky Stork breeding platforms takes a full day and should be coordinated through the Sam Veasna Center – mention specifically your interest to go to the Milky Stork site or they may not go that far. Even if they do not go to the Milky Stork site, this location is filled with shorebirds including Greater Adjutants. The trip to the Milky Stork platform is only possible in January and February when water in Tonle Sap is at the right level. After February, levels drop too low, but unusual conditions could lengthen the access time. It may also be possible to wade through a lot of mud to get there in borderline conditions. We did not schedule this because late March is usually very dry. This trip can be made from Siem Reap or Kamphong Thom.
There are two other options to consider when going to the ibis site. WCS can arrange to set up a “vulture restaurant”, which is a feeding station to attract White-rumped, Slender-billed, and Red-headed Vultures. This involves slaughtering a cow and waiting for the vultures to come in to feed, so advance planning is required and there is a fee for the cow.
White-winged Ducks are also found in the area of Tmatbaey, although the infrastructure is not yet developed and access is limited; however, the WCS would like to develop a program for protection of the White-winged Duck similar to what exists for the other threatened species of northern plains of Cambodia, so access may soon become easier.
Another Cambodian birding spot we did not visit is Bokor, in the southern part of the country, near the Thai border. This is readily accessible from Phnom Penh. This highland area holds partridges and pittas.
The Wildlife Conservation Society is coordinating a lot of the activity in Cambodia and has trained guides in the locations noted above. Donations to the WCS of US 30 / person if you see the ibis in Tmatbaey and US 10 / person if you see the florican in Kamphong Thom are distributed to villages for basic needs such as drilling for wells. The villages in the northern part of Cambodia are very poor and remote. Tourism must be a totally foreign concept to people who are struggling to survive day-to-day. The money provided supports the conversation efforts by spreading the benefits of the visiting birders to the entire community, rather than to only a few such as a guide. The WCS is to be commended for their efforts to not only preserve the birds and habitat of this region but also for improving the lives of its residents.
Where to see: Giant Ibis and White-shouldered Ibis / Northern Plains of Cambodia; Tom Clements, Pete Davidson, and Tan Setha, BirdingASIA 4 (2005), Bulletin of the Oriental Bird Club.
Wildlife Conservation Society – Cambodia Program, Phnom Penh, Tel/Fax 855- (0) 23-217205, e-mail: email@example.com
ASH – Monsoon Tours No. 67 Str 528, PO Box 12151, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tel/fax: 855-23-882-016 e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Frederic Goes is at Sam Veasna Center (email@example.com); also contact this group for tours to Prek Toal to visit Milky Stork breeding platforms in season.
Locations: Tmatbaey = TB; Krous Kraom = KK; Kratie = KR.
Indian Cormorant, common KR
Great Cormorant, common KR
Little Cormorant, common KR
Purple Heron, TB
Intermediate Egret, TB
Cattle Egret, common
Little Egret, TB
Chinese Pond-heron, common
Cinnamon Bittern, one at TB
Woolly-necked Stork, two at TB
Lesser Adjutant, one at TB
White-shouldered Ibis, six at TB
Giant Ibis, two at TB
Oriental Honey-Buzzard, TB
Black Kite, common
Brahminy Kite, common
Gray-headed Fish-eagle, 1 at TB
Crested Serpent-eagle, 1 at TB
Eastern Marsh-harrier, common at KK
Pied Harrier, several males perched at KK
White-rumped Falcon, one at TB
Rufous-winged Buzzard, 2 at TB
Changeable Hawk-eagle, 1 at TB
Chinese Francolin, very common at TB, several seen on road
Red Junglefowl, TB
Blue-breasted Quail, KK
Barred Button-quail, KK
Common Moorhen, KK
Bengal Florican, 3 males seen at KK
Pheasant-tailed Jacana, KK
Bronze-winged Jacana, KK
Snipe sp., KK
Oriental Pratincole, common at KK
Red-wattled Lapwing, KK
Common Redshank, KR
Terek Sandpiper, KR
Marsh Sandpiper, KR
Common Sandpiper, KR
Whiskered Tern, KR
Red Collared-Dove, TB
Pale-capped Pigeon, TB (in flight, seen only by guides)
Spotted Turtle-dove, TB
Alexandrine Parakeet, TB, only a few
Blossom-headed Parakeet, TB, commonest parakeet, often perching atop bare trees
Red-breasted Parakeet, common, TB
Large Hawk-cuckoo, TB
Asian Koel, heard everywhere
Greater Coucal, KK
Edible-nest Swiftlet, common
House Swift, Khamphong Thom town
Asian Palm-swift, common
Crested Tree-swift, common
Common Kingfisher, common
White-throated Kingfisher, common
Green Bee-eater, TB
Blue-tailed Bee-eater, TB
Indian Roller, TB
Hoopoe, very common at TB
Lineated Barbet, TB
Grey-capped Woodpecker, TB
White-bellied Woodpecker, TB
Lesser Yellownape, TB
Black-headed Woodpecker, TB
Common Flameback, TB
Barn Swallow, TB
Red-rumped Swallow, KK
Mekong Wagtail, KR. We found an adult on a sand bar about 200 meters upriver from the main boat landing, at the first area of sand banks. A juvenile soon flew in, then they both flew off.
Paddyfield Pipit, TB
Indochinese Bushlark, one for certain at TB; complicated by the presence of:
Australasian Bushlark, several at TB, showing white outer tail feathers. If this is indeed the distinct difference, then at this time there was an overlap of both species.
Black-hooded Oriole, TB
Rufous Treepie, TB
Large Cuckoo-shrike, TB
Ashy Minivet, TB
Small Minivet, TB
Common Woodshrike, TB
Sooty-headed Bulbul, TB
Streak-eared Bulbul, KR
Common Iora, TB
Oriental Magpie-Robin, common
Common Stonechat, KK
Oriental Reed-warbler, KK
Black-browed Reed-warbler, KK
Common Tailorbird, TB
Zitting Cisticola, KK
Arctic Warbler (ID probable), KR
Plain Prinia, TB
White-browed Fantail, TB
Purple Sunbird, common
Brown Shrike, common
Burmese Shrike, TB
Black Drongo, common
Ashy Drongo, common
Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, TB
Large-billed Crow, common
Common Myna, common
Hill Myna, common
Vinous-breasted Starling, TB
Black-collared Starling, TB
Chestnut-tailed Starling, TB
House Sparrow, common
Eurasian Tree Sparrow, common
Red Avadavat, KK
White-rumped Munia, KK
Scaly-breasted Munia, KK