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Bird news from Vietnam, from Vietnam's resident and visiting birders.

18 February 2015

Birding Sa Pa / 14-17th Feb.

Spent recently some days at Sa Pa – my 3rd trip there. At this time of the year, like more mountain sites in the north of Vietnam, the weather and especially fog can be a disturbing factor for visiting birders. I spent 3,5 days in the area but lost 1,5 days to rain and fog. Very frustrating when you hear birds calling around you and all you observe are shadows in the fog, sometimes few meters away! Fortunately my third day was sunny and I had a fantastic birding and photo session. 

I focused on 3 places: Ham Rong Gardens, Tram Ton pass (the “Golden stream/Love waterfall” area) and the scrubby hillsides en route to the pass. All of my birding was at elevation between 1500 and 1800m. To go up higher you have to follow the trail to Mt. Fansipan peak (3143m) which is demanding logistically (for "security reasons", the rangers will not allow you to enter the trail without a local guide) and time-wise. But most of the birds below the Camp 1 (2200m) can be seen in the “Golden stream/Love waterfall” area.

-Ham Rong Gardens: just a short walk out of the town. The lower parts are planted with forest-like patches of ornamental trees. Towards the top, grassy and scrubby vegetation takes over, and it is here that most interesting species can be seen.
I spotted there Daurian Redstart, Hill Prinia, Buff-throated Warbler, Brown-breasted Bulbul, Kloss's Leaf-Warbler, mixed flock of Vinous-throated and Ashy-throated Parrotbills, singing Grey Bushchat, Black-throated Sunbird, Little Bunting, Rusty-capped Fulvetta, Black-headed Greenfinch, Olive-backed Pipit, Verditer Flycatcher, Blue-winged Siva, singing Rufous-capped Babblers, singing Brownish-flanked Bush-Warblers…
Note that towards 10-11am a set of mega-loudspeakers is turned on to play pseudo-traditional music at ear-shattering volume!

-Tram Ton pass (15km from Sa Pa) - “Golden stream/Love waterfall” area: mixed flocks up here are amazingly species-rich. But the birding is slow between flocks - on average, I encountered 1 flock  ("bird-wave") every 30-45 min.
Recorded all three species of Minlas (Bar-throated, Red-tailed and Blue-winged), 2 Nuthatches (Chestnut-vented and White-tailed), 3 Tits (Yellow-cheeked, Yellow-browed and Black-throated), 2 Yuhinas (Stripe-throated, Wiskered), Ashy-throated, Chestnut-crowned and Black-faced Warblers, Great Barbet (h), a small party of Red-billed Blue-Magpies, female Red-flanked or Himalayan Bluetail, Golden Parrotbill (in the bamboo stands), Rufous-winged Fulvetta. Ground skulkers are present in good numbers with Pygmy Wren Babbler (only heard) and Grey-bellied Tesia (“crippling” views) sharing the dense undergrowth near streams. Along the Golden stream Blue Whistling Thrush, singing Plumbeous Water Redstart, Slaty-backed Forktail.

Forest below Tram Ton pass

-Scrubby hillsides en route to the pass
Best there were the cool Finchbill duo (Crested and Collared), Black-eared Shrike-Babbler, Spectacled Barwing, Spot-breasted Parrotbill, many singing Kloss's Leaf-Warblers, Rusty-capped Fulvetta, Green-tailed Sunbird, Black-throated Bushtit.

All in all it was a good trip, although the weather was not very cooperative. Again I missed Pale-throated Wren-Babbler, Golden-breasted Fulvetta, Black-streaked Scimitar-Babbler, White-browed Laughingthrush... I also never spotted a single Hwamei in the wild, but dozens in cage at Sa Pa town!

The cable car to the top of Mt. Fansipan will open on Vietnam’s National Day, September 2, this year. It will provide easy and quick access to the bamboo forest at 2800-3000m... but I don't think I will take it.
Vietnam seems to have this deep insecurity that its natural beauty and scenic landscapes are not enough -- they must be ‘improved’ with cable cars, touristic complexes and other recreational facilities, even in the heart of national parks… It’s a real shame.


 Black-throated Bushtit
talifuensis race (N Myanmar, north Indochina) with rufescent crown

Vinous-throated Parrotbill
Quite easy to find at Ham Rong Gardens, in mixed flocks with Ashy-throated
Check the scrubby/grassy margins !

Vinous-throated Parrotbill - foggy atmosphere

Rusty-capped Fulvetta, with 2 Parrotbills (Ashy-throated on the left, Vinous-throated on the right!)
In Ham Rong Gardens, this skulker is common in the scrubby margins

Golden Parrotbill prefers bamboo stands

Golden Parrotbill

Golden Parrotbill

Green-tailed Sunbird

Kloss's Leaf-Warbler P. ogilviegranti, one of the splits of the White-tailed Leaf-Warbler complex.
I made some recordings of singers. Common year-round resident at Sa Pa.

Kloss's Leaf-Warbler Pallas's Leaf Warbler
(thanks to James Eaton for pointing out this ID mistake)

Kloss's Leaf-Warbler, more pictures

Yellow-browed Warbler
Abundant winter visitor

Black-faced Warbler

Blue-winged Siva

Crested and Collared Finchbills - found together in heavily degraded or scrubby forests

male Yellow-cheeked Tit (north indochinese race rex, blue-grey above, broad ventral stripe)

A typical component species of mixed-species foraging flocks in forest

female Yellow-cheeked Tit, with olive-yellow ventral stripe

Another female

Yellow-browed Tit

Wiskered Yuhina

Wiskered Yuhina

Stripe-throated Yuhina

Rufous-winged Fulvetta

Bar-throated Minla

Bar-throated Minla

Grey-bellied Tesia
No playback used to lure it into view. Heard its call and found it foraging in the open along a stream, quite indifferent to my presence

Grey-bellied Tesia

More photos of this odd-looking little fellow (unfortunately blurry ones)

Black-eared Shrike-Babbler

Chestnut-crowned Warbler

White-tailed Nuthatch

White-tailed Nuthatch

Hill Prinia - noisy inhabitant of grass and low vegetation

male Plumbeous Water Redstart

even more beautiful when it spread out its rufous tail


  1. As always - great pictures and so good to see some of the more range-restricted species on the blog!

    I'm sure all former VN-birdos love this stuff (not the friggin cable car of course)!

    All the best from Oz,

    1. Thanks Falk - nice to hear from you. I hope you enjoy a lot your new life in Australia.


  2. Bringing back some great memories of Sa Pa - almost makes me want to return though I guess much has changed since my last visit, 10 years ago.
    One of your Kloss's looks very small-billed and bull-headed - Pallas's?


    1. Thanks James. Just checked the serie of shots concerning this bird, it is indeed a Pallas`s. Well done!


  3. Amazing photos and birding story Sebastien :)

  4. Great photos, thanks for sharing Sebastien!