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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative


2020 Narrative

It’s now about eleven years since Myanmar’s government released liberation activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi from almost 15 years of house arrest. At the same time, they launched an ongoing series of reforms and, for a short while, this Southeast Asian country started to emerge from the tourism shadows. A record 3.4 million visitors entered Myanmar in 2017 but subsequent events and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya across the border with Bangladesh in the latter half of 2017 stymied all of this and Myanmar was, once again, partially ostracised. This time our intrepid, exclusive group were among the, rather few, foreign tourists to visit this fabulously welcoming, fabulously friendly, fabulously bird-rich and fascinating nation. At the end of the tour we were all delighted that we’d done it.

We spent our first day in Myanmar on a leisurely sightseeing excursion that took us around the spectacular Shwedagon Pagoda, into Kandawgi Park and to the Botathaung jetty area in downtown Yangon. Needless to say we logged a few birds – with a female Plaintive Cuckoo and a well-seen Collared Scops Owl in our Yangon hotel grounds probably being the pick of the bunch. Nevertheless, it wasn’t really until Thiri took us out to Hlawga Park early the following morning that our birding started in earnest. That fabulously bird-rich park yielded an exciting array of introductory species with a Large-tailed Nightjar, several close-range Racket-tailed Treepies, three Stripe-throated Bulbuls, an Oriental Dollarbird, eight gorgeous Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters, our first Black-winged Cuckooshrike and a spectacular flock of minivets that contained our first Rosy as well as single Ashy and Swinhoe’s being the highlights. The latter species was the day’s second ‘checklist write-in’ - the other having been what was apparently Myanmar’s first ever Red-breasted Flycatcher!

Further into the park we enjoyed looks at a male White-rumped Shama and our first water birds with several Asian Openbills and particularly impressive numbers of Glossy Ibis (50), Lesser Whistling Duck (100) and harringtoni Indian Spot-billed Ducks (33). Later that afternoon we had our first internal flight as we headed up to Bagan. Our time in the Dry Zone around the spectacular ancient city of Bagan, itself a World Heritage site, was superb. Five of Myanmar’s seven even endemic birds awaited us there and all of them performed brilliantly. White-throated Babbler was seen between the airport and our hotel on our very first evening while the common Jerdon’s Bush Lark and the stunningly attractive Jerdon’s Minivet we seen easily, and surprisingly quickly, early the following morning. The recently split Burmese Prinia eventually put on a fine show and even a pair of the typically recalcitrant Hooded Treepie showed readily and well. We’d see four of these five endemics again the following morning (only the minivet eluded us that day) – and even improved on our, already excellent, views of the treepie!

Our time around Bagan also produced brilliant looks at a Booted Eagle, a perched Laggar Falcon, umpteen Vinous-breasted Starlings, the distinctive endemic Myanmar xanthocyclus form of Eurasian Collared Dove, Plain-backed Sparrows galore, a Eurasian Wryneck, two Siberian Rubythroats, more Yellow-eyed Babblers and our first Wire-tailed Swallows. We also logged decent numbers of gorgeous Burmese Shrikes, Indochinese Rollers and enchanting Green Bee-eaters. With three nights and two full days at Bagan we also found time to have a sightseeing excursion around a few of the myriad stupas that the area’s famed for and had a cruise on the Irrawaddy river (once referred to as ‘the road to Mandalay’). The latter produced fabulous encounters with a stunning male Pied Harrier, good numbers of Small Pratincoles, umpteen Sand Larks and a remarkable 10 White-tailed Stonechats. Unfortunately, all five of the Rain Quail that we noted, were either only heard or only glimpsed in flight. Nevertheless, minor disappointments aside Bagan had certainly ‘produced the goods’ – the birds, the scenery, and the splendour.

Mount Victoria was our nest destination and our fleet of four-wheel drive vehicles transported us there in the style that we were already becoming accustomed to. We scored on route with decent looks at both Alexandrine and Red-breasted Parakeets (and would revel in even better looks at Grey-headed on the return journey). Although the area’s White-rumped Falcon never showed and an awkward Burmese (no-longed Neglected) Nuthatch teased us but remained hidden, a party of Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrushes, woodpeckers that included great looks at both Streak-throated and Rufous, a Changeable Hawk-eagle and three Crested Serpent Eagles offered considerable compensation.

Mount Victoria was just as good as we’d dreamt it would be and our initial explorations of it that same afternoon yielded our first Chestnut-vented Nuthatches and Hume’s Treecreepers and, while we only heard Striped Laughingthrush and three Chin Hills Wren-babblers, they reminded us that there were an awful lot more species to search for. The fabulous oak and rhododendron forests of the mountain’s higher elevations held our two remaining targeted endemics and we had several encounters with both.

The poorly known Burmese Bushtit performed well but it was what’s arguably Myanmar’s most sought after avian jewel, the rare and very local, White-browed Nuthatch that really stole the show! Both proved much easier to see than we’d ever dared hope and, satiated with these, we could move on in search of the mountain’s other avian prizes. With five nights and four full days on this fabulous mountain rather little escaped us. Mount Victoria Babax fell at what was almost the first hurdle as, eventually, did the trio of laughingthrushes - Assam, Striped and Brown-capped. As you’d expect Chin Hills Wren-babbler and Chestnut-headed Tesia proved a little more awkward – but our continued efforts eventually proved well worth it.

Other show-stoppers included a superb pair of Spot-breasted Parrotbills, great looks at several parties of Streak-throated Barwings, an inquisitive Black-bibbed Tit, an obliging Yellow-bellied Flowerpecker, multiple encounters with both Grey-sided and Eyebrowed Thrushes; three Spot-winged Grosbeaks close to our hotel; two pairs of well-seen Red-faced Liocichlas and Blue-winged Laughingthrushes, particularly impressive numbers of Fire-tailed Sunbirds and woodpeckers galore… Oh and then there were more Hume’s Treecreepers than you could shake a stick at, stunning looks at the two higher elevation barbets (Great and Golden-throated) and a close-range encounter with a Hodgson’s Frogmouth that almost stole the show. Our picnics in the field were great and meals back at the lodge similarly impressive.

It wasn’t all plain sailing however as a vocal pair of Rufous-necked Hornbills, apparently the first on the mountain for over a decade, remained hidden from view as did all three of the Large Niltavas that we heard. Only a couple of us saw any of the Golden Bush Robins that we heard, and not one of us even heard a Black-headed Shrike Babbler or a Himalayan Cutia. Both are scarce here on this majestic mountain but are usually highly vocal. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to ‘clean-up’ at a massive site such as Mount Victoria and our small disappointments in not connecting with one of two species were hugely out-weighed by the species that we did see.

Our next port of call, after another internal flight was Inle, Myanmar’s second largest lake, and we’d no sooner checked in to our hotel than we were back out again – this time taking a lengthy boat ride. The leg rowers and fishermen were out in force but, fascinating though they were, it wasn’t them that we’d come to see – nor for that matter were the gulls, the myriad Asian Openbills, the Glossy Ibis, the Cinnamon Bitterns, the Black-winged Kites, or the harriers. Our primary targets were quality world rarities in the forms of Jerdon’s Bush Chat, Chinese Grassbird and Collared Myna. They all took some effort and while the myna and chat both performed surprisingly readily and equally superbly the grassbird remained hidden and silent and we had to wait until our second boat ride the following morning before we eventually connected with it. These boat rides are a fantastic and integral part of the tour and with more modern, significantly quieter boats this year, were also a lot more fun.

Other birders had found several Baer’s Pochard at Inle earlier in the winter and we were fortunate in that three remained for us to enjoy – we noted two males and a female on our first boat trip and probably the same three birds on the following morning’s jaunt. Other goodies at Inle included eight Cook’s Swifts, umpteen heard-only Lanceolated and Pallas’s Grasshopper Warblers, several markedly less skulking Yellow-bellied Prinias, a couple of Bluethroats and what was perhaps the first Burmese record of a nominate Indian Spot-billed Duck. The following morning’s boat ride kicked off what was to prove to be our most species-rich day of the entire tour – a day that we logged a whopping 122 species! The undoubted highlight of our second Inle boat ride from the spectacular Hupin hotel were the decent looks we had of a Chinese Grassbird. After a hearty lunch we left Inle and headed west, back past Heho airport and up to the hill station of Kalaw. Despite an unpleasant amount of traffic our afternoon walk yielded a few interesting birds…but nothing remotely approaching those we’d see on the lengthy full day’s walk-through forest towards the Yea Aye Kan reservoir trail the following day. Umpteen Slender-billed Orioles and White-browed Scimitar Babblers, an obliging Black-tailed Crake, several Dark-backed Sibias, a party of Spectacled Barwings, fabulous looks at Eurasian Jays of the distinctive leucotis subspecies, a White-gorgeted Flycatcher and a demure Sapphire Flycatcher, a White-crowned Forktail, a very cooperative Hill Prinia and a flock of enchanting Silver-breasted Broadbills were just a few of the more enjoyable species.

What’s more, although that was our final full day in Myanmar, it certainly wasn’t the end of the birding – we stopped off at some roadside pools on our way from Kalaw back to Heho airport the following morning with Grey-headed Lapwing and Ruddy-breasted Crake being the 419th and 420th species added to the trip list. Add to those another 25 participant or leader-only species (the latter are not detailed in the tour end bird list) and between us we logged 445 species – and exceptional tally for a two-week Asian tour!

We were blessed with gorgeous weather throughout and I think that it’s safe to say that Myanmar exceeded most of our expectations. Myanmar, with its rich heritage, friendly, inviting people and diverse culture, had proved to have been a truly fascinating and massively rewarding country to visit.

I wrote the following at the end of a previous trip report ‘Recent political reform has finally opened Myanmar’s doors and what still is, both culturally and ornithologically, a desperately poorly known country certainly won’t remain that way for much longer. The largest and ornithologically most diverse country in Southeast Asia it’s blessed with a series of endemics and other specialities. Myanmar is a fascinating destination in so many ways and we were enthralled by our modest insights into its unique culture and heritage. It’s difficult to single out just one highlight from what was a great tour – we simply explored so many radically different areas from the higher elevation, rich forests on the peaks of Mount Victoria, to the open savannah type terrain of the Irrawaddy Plain and the historic capital at Yangon (formerly Rangoon). For many of us however our visit to Bagan, one of the nation’s richest historic sites, was the undoubted highlight.

To this day very few birders have visited this exciting country – and we were lucky that we can now count ourselves among the vanguard. The previously introspective military government are hopefully a thing of the past and the flood gates now open. Burma, as it was once known, has massive potential once again.

                                                                                                                                                                          – Paul Holt

Created: 09 March 2020