Cat Tien National Park, part two

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Asia » Vietnam
August 7th 2015
Published: October 6th 2015
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On my second day at Cat Tien I set off for Crocodile Lake, or Bau Sau to the Vietnamese. In 2005 this was named as Vietnam's second Ramsar site (the first being the Xuan Thuy Wetland Reserve in 1989; there are now six Ramsar sites in the country, the latest being Con Dao National Park in 2014). Crocodile Lake is somewhat ephemeral, shrinking and growing depending on the rains, and as I was there in the rainy season it was in its extensive phase with the water almost up to the watch-tower at the ranger post.

To get to the lake from the HQ there is first 9km of road and then a 5km trail. When I was emailing the park before going to Vietnam I was told that a jeep to the trailhead would cost 500,000 Dong (about NZ$35). You can also rent a bicycle which would cost 240,000 overnight, so only half the price of the jeep, but I was staying at the lake for two nights so they didn't want me to do that. Luckily there was a couple going to the lake for a day-trip on the same morning that I was going, so I just shared their jeep and it only cost me 150,000. I'd heard from a few reports that a guide was a definite requirement if using the Crocodile Lake trail but this is complete nonsense, and in fact the trail is now entirely concreted so not even a blind person could get lost when on it.

The road from the HQ is sealed for the first 3km, then it turns to earth for the next 6km. There were lots of broadbill nests dangling from trees along the route, and twice I saw pittas bouncing off the road - I didn't see either of them well but thought they might be Blue-rumped Pittas, however a guide I talked to later said that if they were on the road they must have been Blue-winged Pittas. Whichever they were, they were the only pittas I saw while at Cat Tien. Stupid pittas. The trailhead is at a small shelter - the road keeps on going to somewhere further - and the trail itself is formed from volcanic rocks in-filled with concrete. It looks like it was done fairly recently. Perhaps tourists were complaining about leeches. I myself didn't see a single leech anywhere over the next two days. There are gaps between the rocks along the sides of the trail, and in these dwell a lot of freakin' scary Scutigerids. They mostly come out at night... mostly... but sometimes in the day one would shoot out across my feet and make me jump. I don't mind them really, it is just their sudden appearance and lightning speed which creeps me out. Not as freaky, though, as one morning in the watch-tower when I must have brushed against the web of a giant orb-weaver without noticing; I'm just sitting there and suddenly a mass of legs comes over the brim of my cap, just at that distance from your eyes when you can't see what it is, just that it's huge and far too close to your face!

Nothing noteworthy was seen on the walk to the lake, only White-rumped Shama, Streaked Spiderhunter and Crimson Sunbird.

At the lake there is the ranger post containing the accommodation, which connects via a raised boardwalk to a watch-tower. The rooms there are perfectly good, and they have solar panels for 24-hour electricity. The food is cooked by the rangers and is excellent. Mostly it is
baby Black-shanked Doucbaby Black-shanked Doucbaby Black-shanked Douc

(horribly out of focus, but it was really cute!)
based around fish from the lake but on my second night was (domestic) duck. After the first meal, when they saw I knew how to use chopsticks proficiently, they stopped giving me western utensils and I ate communally with them rather than alone as a tourist. Only one of the rangers spoke any English.

The lake's surface is a bit of a mosaic of open water, reed beds, and mats of water hyacinth. It turned out that the reed beds are actually floating, not rooted. On one morning after a patch of heavy rain accompanied by some fairly stiff wind, I came back to the watch-tower and saw that the entire lake had changed, with all the nearest reed beds having been shunted across the lake and merged into islands. The reeds were a hive of birdy activity. Asian Golden Weavers were constantly zooming back and forth collecting nest material, Purple Swamphens and White-breasted Waterhens popped up here and there, a few Bronze-winged Jacanas looked preposterous as they flew about, Lesser Coucals were ever-present, and bitterns were also very active. Cinnamon Bitterns seemed to spend all their waking moments chasing one another back and forth between the reed beds, once I saw a Yellow Bittern (on the second day), and there were Black Bitterns too, either a lot of them or just a few very mobile ones. I wouldn't have to sit more than five minutes before a Black or Cinnamon Bittern flew past. At just around midday, a pair of Green Peafowl made an appearance at the edge of the forest over on the left side of the lake and spent a bit of time walking about before leaving, and in the late afternoon I saw a Lesser Adjutant as well.

There are, of course, crocodiles in the lake. The species here is the Siamese Crocodile, of which about 60 were reintroduced over several years from 2001. The number of juveniles seen by rangers attests to the successful establishment of the population. They are quite easy to see from the watch-tower. In fact the first animal I saw from the tower was a crocodile, even before any of the birds. On the first evening I watched one trying to swallow something, probably a catfish, which was either too large or too feisty to go down without a struggle. Usually there would only be one croc visible, but sometimes two or three could be seen at once, and at night a torch swept across the lake would show up numerous glowing red orbs.

In the afternoon I walked back along the trail but it was just as dead bird-wise as before. I did see a troop of Black-shanked Doucs, albeit very poorly through several layers of trees. The typical primate sighting in Cat Tien seemed to be trees crashing as monkeys jumped, more trees crashing as you tried to see them, then if you were lucky one or two individuals would pause briefly in an open patch just long enough for you to see which species they were, and then they would all disappear.

Just around 4.30pm I had a bit better luck with another group of monkeys which I thought were going to be more doucs but turned out to be the sought-after Annamese Silvered Langurs. This was a large group, more than ten animals, and they afforded me some fine views. I didn't even try to get any photos of them because they were moving about too much and I already knew from trying to get douc photos that all I would end up with was shots of leaves and blurry dark things in the background, but with the binoculars I watched them easily. They were moving around a lot, but I probably had somewhere between five and ten minutes viewing altogether. One of the guides I met later didn't believe that I had seen them because he had never managed to do so.

I tried some spot-lighting that night, seeing a Common Palm Civet as soon as I had left the ranger post, but about two minutes later the rain suddenly came hammering down out of nowhere. I waited for a while but it didn't look like it was going to stop any time soon, so I just went to bed. The next morning more rain came in just after 4am until about 6am, so I just sat in the watch-tower until after breakfast. While watching the bitterns and jacanas flying around I spotted a Yellow Bittern (the only one I saw here), as well as a small group of Lesser Whistling Ducks. Some small black and white thing was buzzing around the far side of the lake - I had an idea of what it might be but it took a while before it landed in the right place, in the sun, for me to be able to see it properly. It was a male White Pigmy Goose, I guess the flying being a display for his female because they were the only two I could see.

After breakfast I went off down the trail (there's only one here). Not far from the ranger post, as I was creeping along really slow and quiet, there was suddenly a huge roar from off to the side and a thrashing of bushes. I just about leapt out of my skin, with all my primeval instincts shouting "giant predator, run like hell!". I'm not sure what it was; it didn't sound like a Sambar so I'm fairly certain it was probably a Gaur. It was close but I sure as heck wasn't going into the undergrowth to find out! Gaur can be mean, and if it was one it didn't sound happy about me surprising it.

Elsewhere on the trail I saw Black-shanked Doucs three times today, first a lone male and then two separate troops, but all of them were very shy, disappearing as soon as they realised I had seen them. Another monkey troop turned out to be Northern Pig-tailed Macaques. I was also happy to spot two Cambodian Striped Squirrels. There are only four species of Tamiops - I had seen Himalayan Striped Squirrels several times before in Malaysia, and the Maritime and Swinhoe's Striped Squirrels in China in 2013, so the Cambodian Striped Squirrel was the final one. I didn't manage to get any photos of course.

Despite spending a long morning being oh so quiet and sneaky on the trail, I completely failed to find any peacock-pheasants or pittas. I did see a Scaly-breasted Partridge scruffing around in the leaf litter, and briefly a female Siamese Fireback Pheasant; I think there had been a male as well, as I got a glimpse of some bright red through the leaves, but if so he disappeared before I actually saw him.

Later in the day, back at the watch-tower, three Green Peafowl were out in the same place as yesterday but for about an hour from 4pm to 5pm. If I understood the ranger correctly the peafowl come right past the buildings at dawn, but that didn't happen while I was there. Also in the afternoon I spied a little bird running around in the vegetable patch below the watch-tower, which turned out to be an Indochinese Bushlark picking caterpillars off the plants.

The only animal seen during this night's spot-lighting efforts was a Common Palm Civet, which was probably the same one as on the previous night.

The next morning I counted three Siamese Crocodiles in the water in front of the watch-tower. After breakfast I left the lake to return to the HQ where I would be staying for two more nights. My jeep-ride to the lake had only been one-way (because I had just shared someone else's day-trip jeep), so I was simply going to walk back to the HQ. It was 14km so not far and I didn't have much to carry, having left at reception anything that I hadn't needed for the two nights stay at the lake. On the trail back to the main road I heard Buff-cheeked Gibbons calling and saw a troop of Black-shanked Doucs really well (and got a couple of horribly-blurry photos of a baby douc). I also spied out a sneaky Lesser Mouse Deer creeping through the undergrowth. Bird-wise was a bit better than the other days, with my very first Drongo Cuckoos (finally!) as well as the near-endemic Grey-faced Tit-babblers and a cool Pale-headed Woodpecker. Still no pittas or peacock-pheasants. A couple of times I came across pairs of dung beetles on the road, collecting the little balls of poo in which they lay their eggs. I've never seen dung beetles in real life before, believe it or not, so I had to stop to watch them for a bit. I felt like Gerald Durrell. The road itself back to HQ didn't show up much at all unfortunately, other than a few very common birds.

Back at HQ I checked in to one of the 200,000 Dong rooms which are all contained within the Pheasant building (all the bungalows and buildings have "national park" names - the original bungalow I stayed in was called Lagerstroemia, which is a type of tree, and other rooms had names like Elephant or Hornbill). The room was a basic concrete room, nothing flash, but it had a bed and a fan so it suited me fine. The toilets were seperate to the room, which apparently for some people is a big deal, and that is why they don't offer them to tourists unless you specify you want the cheapest rooms.

After lunch I walked along the road heading south from HQ, the one which runs firstly through groves of giant bamboo and scrappy forest, and then to the grasslands. In the bamboo I saw some monkeys disappearing, and really was fortunate to get a brief look at a young one showing it was a macaque with a long tail, which here translates solely to Crab-eating Macaque (aka Long-tailed Macaque). All other macaques in Vietnam have either a short tail or no tail at all. Crab-eaters are well-nigh ubiquitous in southeast Asia, often turning into little hooligans around anywhere that tourists are, so when even they actively avoid people you know you're in a country where wildlife-watching is hard work!!

There are apparently two watch-towers in the grasslands, used by birders for spotting Green Peafowl. I walked for a fair distance - and it was jolly freaking hot out there on the road! - and never found the first one which is supposed to be set back from the road but still visible, but I did find the second one. It sits right next to the road, has a good number of the steps missing and half the floor of the viewing deck has rotted away leaving gaping holes.

I saw Green Peafowl twice in cut-over sections while walking, some sort of quail or buttonquail crossing the road (not close enough to see which species), a good-sized flock of Moustached Parakeets, lots of Indian Rollers and Dollarbirds, Black-hooded Orioles, and two lifers - Red Collared Doves and Chestnut-capped Babblers. In one of the cut-over sections (where the head-high grass is harvested, leaving big squares of short grass) there was a herd of Sambar.

Earlier at reception I had enquired about their night drives and been told there was one going out tonight with four people, so I had signed on for that (it cost me 170,000 Dong, the full price being roughly divided amongst the number of participants). I like spot-lighting alone but on foot you are restricted to walking distances, so I also like to try out night drives where they are available because the distances covered can be greater and often more species are seen. Both ways have their merits, and often night drives really suck in the way they are operated, but I still give them a try. The one at Cat Tien goes along the same south road I walked today through the grasslands (in fact I had walked the entire distance the truck travelled) and most of the animals seen were Sambar. But just past the second watch-tower we lit up a herd of about ten Gaur. I have seen these before in India but they were in long grass which made them seem smaller - or at least made me remember them as smaller - whereas these ones were on short grass. They are Gigantic!! It was a very nice species to see on my birthday. Oh, had I mentioned today was my birthday? Well, it was. Apart for those two species, the only other animal seen was a Burmese Hare, which I saw only because I was using my own torch at the same time.


7th October 2015

Hello - as a fellow wildlife enthusiast who , like you, travels the glove to see critters, I do enjoy reading your Travelblogs. Vietnam is on my list - but not high on my list - , as I have heard that much of the wildlife was killed there during the Vietnam War, when starving people turned to the native animals for food. A lot of the wildlife was killed for food. This might partly explain the low level of remaining critters that you mention ?
7th October 2015

hey Craig, yes the seemingly endless wars there did an enormous amount of damage, most particularly when the Americans arrived and started an active exterminate-the-ecosystem campaign. Mowadays poaching is incredibly high in the country also. Basically, outside of the protected areas there is no wildlife left, and within the protected areas it is all getting hunted out. Soon everything there will be gone.

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