4-5/03/11 Simon Mahood
Edwards's and Vietnamese Pheasants are probably the same species, just with a different number of white feathers in the tail (none in the former, more than none in the latter). Nonetheless, they are very rare, and have been very rarely seen. Part of the reason for this is that it is very hard to find their preferred habitat - broadleaved evergreen forest below 300 meters elevation, the lower the better, and forest on Karst, such as Phong Nha Ke Bang is no good.
So I took a look at Googleearth and found this place:
If you pull it up on your Googlearth and run the cursor over the forest alongside roads marked in red you will find that there is plenty of it below 200 m elevation! So I headed off here, using the overnight train to Dong Hoi and a motorbike which I rented daily from a hotel in that town. The yellow road is the Ho Chi Minh Highway, whilst the road connecting it to Dong Hoi to the east as an un-named road.
To get to the best bits of forest (those along the roads marked in red in the picture above) you need to first find your way out of Dong Hoi to Highway 1, then you turn off to the west (left if you are driving north like I was when I took this photo) at this junction depicted on the signpost and just visible on the left in the gap between the green trees:
Follow the concrete road without turning off until you get to this junction, where you turn left:
Then keep following this road out of the villages and through the rubber plantations until you get to a guard station and a barrier over the road that marks the start of Truong Son State Forest Enterprise. Wave in a cheery way and shout "Hello" in a jolly voice at the guys at the guard station and show them on your map that you just want to head inland to go for a drive along the legendary Ho Chi Minh Highway and they'll let you on your way (this process has to be repeated at a number of other guard stations further along the road). Ignore the immediate right turn after the barrier and carry on along the un-named tarmac road. This map shows the junctions in more detail:
From here on the forest just gets better and better along the un-named road, which ranges in altitude from 60-170 m elevation. I guess the hills either side of the road go a few hundred meters higher than this, but there is still plenty of habitat for one of those pheasants. This is not forest on karst - it's proper pheasant habitat! By the side of the road are kilometer markers that have been painted over, but you can still faintly make out the distances to the Ho Chi Minh Highway, which I will refer to. In total there is nearly 20 kilometers of good forest alongside this road, and many trails leading off into it. There is a particularly good trail to the left at km13, and another on the right between km 11 and 12, as well as another good one closer to km 12. But any trails which you find are worth exploring. These photos show the forest along some of the trails:
Once you meet the Ho Chi Minh Highway turn right and you will soon get to some logging tracks heading off the road to the right where logging is ongoing, again these are worth exploring. To the left across the river is new track running into the forest which looks promising which I didn't have time to explore. Continuing north the road gains elevation and by the time you have covered 20 kilometers the adjacent forest is about 600 m elevation.
Going south instead of north again leads you through low elevation forest past a few trails which lead into the forest, which I didn't have time to try. Again the road soon gains in elevation and the forest becomes patchier. Approximately 40 kilometers south of the junction there is some karst next to the road which should hold Sooty Babbler.
The two roads and the trails that lead off them were great birding, particularly those that lead of the un-numbered road leading to the Ho Chi Minh Highway. Most of my good sightings were made on the second day. As well as the following notable species I recorded good numbers of raptors and crows - indicators of low hunting pressure:
Annam Partridge - heard all over the place and 2 seen
Red-collared Woodpecker - 1 seen
Austen's Brown Hornbill - heard all the time, everywhere and seen often. The highlight was a flock of at least 40!
Grey and Ratchet-tailed Treepies - common
Blue-rumped Pitta - 1 heard
Grey-faced Tit-babbler - common
Short-tailed Scimitar-babbler - 2 heard in higher elevation areas (c.600 m elevation)
Pig-tailed Macaque - one troop heard and moving trees seen
Wild Pig - one herd heard,and then smelled!
Red-shanked Douc - a troop of at least 8 seen well, although they are invisible, they really are in the scene in this picture:
There was also lots of suitable habitat for Blyth's Kingfisher, which I have previously seen in similar habitat elsewhere in central Vietnam. Sitting by a river for an hour or so would have done the job.
It rained all the time, if it had not then I'm sure I would have seen Southern White-cheeked Crested Gibbon from the road and heard Crested Argus.
As you can tell I dipped the pheasants, but this was not a surprise. My figures for Silver Pheasant at sites where it definitely occurs in Vietnam are as follows:
0 sightings in 7 days at Cuc Phuong NP
2 sightings of 3 birds in 6 days at Tam Dao NP
1 sighting of 4+ birds in 10 days in Bi Doup Nui Ba NP
0 sightings in 3 days in Bach Ma NP
So even if Edwards's/Vietnamese Pheasant does occur at this site (which I think it still does) then I could not really have hoped to see it in two days.
I don't think that this pheasant has been trapped out of the site - numbers of other regularly hunted species were higher than any other site I have visited in Vietnam (except Cat Tien NP), and Lophura are very difficult to trap out anyway - as evidenced by their continued presence in heavily hunted sites such as Cuc Phuong and Tam Dao. I think I just didn't give it enough time.
I asked a couple of local guys who were wandering out of the forest to point to the pheasants in the Robson guide which they were familiar with, both pointed to Crested Argus, Red Junglefowl and the expected race of Silver Pheasant, but despite my best efforts neither could be convinced that the blue one with a white crest could be found in the area. What I really needed to do was to ask them to describe each of the different types of pheasants in the area and put a name to them without showing them the pictures, but my Vietnamese skills are not good enough to do this. Also two is a very low sample size. I still find it hard to believe that Edwards's/Vietnamese Pheasant is not at that site!
This site is worthy of greater attention from birders, not least because some of those tough central Annamite endemics can be seen with ease, but also because there is always the chance you'll come across that mythical pheasant. However, you would need to see a male to be certain that you're not seeing Silver Pheasant, or worse still, "Imperial Pheasant" - the untickable hybrid.
Another place worth visiting not far from this site is along the Ho Chi Minh Highway in Quang Chi border about 150 kilometers south of the junction of the un-named road and the Ho Chi Minh Highway. Here the road reaches 1,100 m elevation. I think that this is the spot where I heard Rufous-cheeked Laughingthrush in 2008, and they appeared to be fairly common - but do bring a tape if you want to see them!
Rufous-cheeked Laughingthrush spot (the red circle, probably):