Dalat birds, part two: Mt. Lang Biang

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Asia » Vietnam
March 23rd 2017
Published: March 27th 2017
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I hadn't had much luck in the forest above the Ho Tuyen Lam reservoir, and Ta Nung was apparently closed off for now, so my next spot was Mt. Lang Biang. This is a mountain about 10km or so outside town and is a popular tourist spot for both locals and visitors. Handily for budget travellers there is also a bus straight to the gate which only costs 12,000 Dong, roughly a tenth of the cost of a taxi. I had put off going here until Monday because I had read that it gets very crowded on the weekends, although having now been there I think that might not be a huge issue when you are on the forest trail to the summit of the mountain.

I had read the buses to Lang Biang start at 6am, so early in the morning I walked over to the little bus station near my hotel. I got there are 5.45am and was met by a motorbike guy who told me the next bus would not be until 7.30am but he could take me for 50,000 Dong. This was a third cheaper than a taxi but four times what the bus would cost. The problem with these little bus stations is that they never have an office or any sort of posted timetables - all the locals apparently just know instinctively where and at what times the buses go. I didn't believe the motorbike driver, so went into one of the little coffee shops nearby and asked the owner what time the next bus was. He said 6.15am. Then I saw a sort of shelter (which, as it happened, was where the drivers hang out between departures) and there I was told 6.40am. This turned out to be the correct time, and once I could find out the schedule when the bus arrived I discovered that the bus before the 6.40am one was at 5.15am. They then go roughly every hour-ish throughout the day, and take exactly thirty minutes to get to the Lang Biang entrance gate. There are a couple of little shops outside the gate too, if you need food and water.

From the entry gate there is a paved road up which jeeps take people to the radar station on top of one of the peaks. This isn't the summit of Lang Biang and there's probably no point going there if you are a birder because I think it is all pine forest there instead of broadleafed forest. Instead the summit trail starts about halfway along that paved road. I'd wager that the majority of the people who visit on weekends just take the jeeps to the top of the road and then come back down again. There probably would be more people on the jungle trail than during the week but I don't think it would be crowded in the way I imagined it before I saw the site first-hand. On the days I was there (Monday and Tuesday) there was nobody on the trail all morning, and then after about noon there were just a few pairs or groups of tourists.

I knew there was an alternate route up to the start of the summit trail - a so-called "short-cut" up through the pine forest - which you could take instead of walking up the road or taking a jeep. The problem with the jeeps for a solo traveller is that they cost 360,000 Dong. This can be split to as low as 60,000 Dong each if there are six people, but in the early morning

a horse painted like a zebra. For some reason.
you might be waiting a while for an appropriate group to turn up with which you can share. I had found a few internet sites with details of the "short-cut" so I had an idea of where it was. One said it started inside the gate up the road a bit, but a couple of others said it started outside the gate up a dirt road directly to the right. After I paid the entry fee (30,000 Dong) I asked the lady at the counter about the trail. She said there was no trail, but I could walk up the paved road. I said there was supposed to be a trail up that dirt road right there, and she said yes there is a trail up there. I love it when a person gives me conflicting statements within the space of a few seconds.

According to the blogs I'd read the "short-cut" starts a few hundred metres up that dirt road and "you cannot miss it". I'm not sure that's entirely true, because I did miss it. The dirt road passes through fields and greenhouses where strawberries are grown, and I asked several workers about the trail. None of them seemed to know about it. I figured I'd gone a bit too far (maybe 500 metres) so I headed back and finally met one woman who pointed it out to me. I think once you know where the trail starts then it is obvious but otherwise it looks like a track for a farmer to get to his field. An easier way to have described it would have been "the first track on your left which doesn't have a barbed-wire gate across it". It is actually right next to one of the wire gates and runs up onto the top of the roadside bank. It there looks like a rain-cut gully rather than a trail. It is only when you get to the top of that steep section that it becomes obvious it is the trail because it is lined either side with barbed-wire fencing to stop walkers and cows from getting into the coffee fields. After a few minutes you come into the open where the pine forest starts.

A lot of this track through the forest is very steep but it is quite easy to follow. There are even occasional arrowed signs showing up and down so that you know you're on the right path. Pity they don't put a sign right at the start of the track on the dirt road! There's really only one bit where you could go astray and that is just before you reach the paved road, where the track forks into a Y. There is a directional sign but it is a bit ambiguous as to which path it is pointing to. I took the steeper left track which looks a bit like it was made by rainwater coming down rather than by feet, and that proved to be the right one. The summit trail then begins at a little hut about fifty metres further along the paved road. Including birding-time the "short-cut" took about an hour. The next day I walked up the paved road to get an idea of the difference and it was marginally faster than the "short-cut" at about 45 minutes. The paved road is also not as steep but is somehow more taxing; I had to stop for a rest at the hut which I hadn't had to do when using the "short-cut". I also saw when walking up the paved road that there are several trails going off on your right into the pine forest and these all connect to the "short-cut" trail.

On the first morning, as I came out onto the paved road from the "short-cut" trail, I met a man and his wife coming down on a motorbike. They stopped and the man said good morning. English is quite widely spoken in Vietnam where-ever there are a lot of tourists, places like Dalat or Danang or Saigon. He then asked me a question I didn't expect: "Are you the director of Kong?" I guess white men with beards just all look the same. In India I was told I looked exactly like Dan Bilzerian, a famous American poker-player who I had never heard of before. If you google a photo of Dan Bilzerian and then google a photo of Jordan Vogt-Roberts, my beard-length is about halfway between the two.

From the hut the summit trail runs for about a kilometre through pine forest and then another kilometre through broadleafed forest up to the summit of Mt. Lang Biang (2167 metres high). The only thing at the summit is a patch of grass where the forest has been cleared off, and a sign saying you are at the summit. With binoculars you can see "the other summit" with the radar station where the jeeps go to. Most of the trail from the hut is pretty gentle. The last 400 metres is where it starts getting steeper, and the final 200 metres or so is almost vertical, just a series of steps which makes the Mt. Kinabalu summit trail look like a fun-run. I only went to the summit on my first day. There's obviously the possibility of seeing birds on that last very steep stretch - I saw the endemic Dalat shrike-babbler almost at the top - but it's just too much work to do it twice!

The pine forest has birds too, of course. In the fields before reaching the forest there are Burmese shrikes, paddyfield pipits, plain-backed sparrows and sooty-headed bulbuls. Right where I left the coffee fields and met the forest, there was a flock of large brightly-coloured birds zooming back and forth in the trees, screeching away. I couldn't work out what these were at first because every time they landed they'd just disappear amongst the branches, but finally I got a perched view and realised they were Eurasian jays. The reason I hadn't been able to recognise them was because their faces are almost entirely bright white and in flight this makes them look completely different to "regular" Eurasian jays.

In the pine forest past the hut I got good views of Vietnamese cutia and chestnut-vented nuthatch (both seen much better than at Ho Tuyen Lam the other day), as well as green-backed tits, grey-capped pigmy woodpecker, black bulbuls, long-tailed minivets, and three species of warblers (Kloss', yellow-browed, and Blyth's).

I had been hoping that the poor showing at Ho Tuyen Lam wouldn't carry over to the broadleafed forest on Mt. Lang Biang but I was still kind of disappointed with my results. The thing with reading trip reports is that they always make it sound like the entire forest is dripping with birds, everywhere you look. Part of it is that very few trip reports are written by people birding by themselves. Especially in places like Vietnam they are almost always with guides and they generally use taped calls to bring the birds to them. I don't like using guides because I'm not that interested in seeing every single bird possible - if I was I would be in a constant state of deep depression! I just like going out and looking for them; a large part of the experience for me is finding wildlife for myself. I will never see as many species as a tour group would but that's fine. And I don't use tapes at all. For me that is just interfering in the birds' lives. You can make the argument that your mere presence is interfering with their lives which could be true, but they can leave or stay as they like. When you tape a bird in you are actively stopping it from doing the things it should be doing, like feeding or incubating or defending its territory against real birds, and to me that is just selfish and potentially detrimental to the bird. Some reports I have read from Mt. Lang Biang carry on like "we taped in this species and then taped in this species and then taped in this species, and then when looking at our lists realised we hadn't seen this species yet so we played our tape and got an immediate response". What all that means is that reading trip reports leads to you thinking you'll see birds everywhere and then when the numbers are less than hoped for, you feel disappointed.

Still, I did see about thirty species in the broadleafed forest over the two days (and more in the pine forest, making about 45 species total) so that's all good. I think that here, as in many other montane forests, you need to find bird-waves - mixed feeding flocks which move through the trees looking for insects. The forest can seem empty, but then suddenly a bird-wave comes past and you have birds everywhere. Some days you see lots of bird-waves and some days you don't. And if you don't find any bird-waves then you simply don't see many birds that day. On my first day I saw only two bird-waves (mainly mountain fulvettas with a few additions like white-throated fantail, yellow-cheeked tit, grey-headed canary-flycatchers, and warblers) and on the second day also only a couple, although the first of these was mostly made up of grey-crowned tits (the six-hundredth bird of this trip) and the second had a silver-eared mesia which apparently used to be a common species on the mountain until the bird-trappers almost wiped them out. Then there are all the much more common birds like mountain bulbul, snowy-browed flycatcher, grey-chinned minivet, verditer flycatcher, etc.

There are certain birds on Mt. Lang Biang which all the birders want to find. One of them is the Dalat shrike-babbler which is endemic to the Dalat Plateau (I did manage to see that one) and another is the black-crowned fulvetta which is one of the cutest little babblers ever! I saw one of these poorly on the first day in amongst the mountain fulvettas, and then a pair very well on the second day. Grey-bellied tesia, rufous-throated partridge and large niltava are more widely-distributed in southeast Asia, but I saw those as well. What I utterly failed to find were any of the endemic laughing thrushes. I think these may be birds which generally need to be taped in to see. They are also heavily-persecuted by the bird-trappers. I did see a flock of white-cheeked laughing thrushes right by the hut - these are found also in Cambodia and Laos - but none of the other species.

I had been going to return to the mountain for a third day running, because it isn't exactly an expensive outing (the bus each way plus the entry fee only comes to about NZ$3.50 in total), but when I woke up in the morning I was too lazy. I kind of knew I wouldn't get to see the collared laughing thrush which was the main species, and I would later be going to Mang Den which shares a number of other Dalat birds (albeit not those laughing thrushes). Instead I was going to head off the next morning to Yok Don National Park which is a dry forest park on the border with Cambodia. However I did not do that. There's only one place to see collared laughing thrushes and that is right there, because they are endemic to the Dalat Plateau. There was only one thing to do. The next morning I got back on the bus to Lang Biang. Second time lucky, right? Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn't, but there's only one way to find out.

The usual birds were around the coffee fields - sooty-headed bulbuls, paddyfield pipits, Burmese shrikes - but things looked more promising as I got to the edge of the pine forest. At the top of a dead tree sat a vinous-breasted starling, calling to nobody. This was only the second time I'd seen this species, the previous occasion being in Burma coincidentally enough (the scientific name of this bird is burmannicus). And in the tree next to it was a small flock of Vietnamese greenfinches, likewise only the second time I'd seen these - although in this case the previous occasion was just a few days ago.

At the start of the summit trail a white-browed scimitar-babbler passed by the little hut and a few minutes later a white-throated rock thrush perched obligingly in a tree. Not far on in a patch of shrubs in a gully a couple of laced woodpeckers mixed with a flock of white-cheeked laughing thrushes. I'd seen the white-cheeked laughing thrushes the other day, but I took it as a good sign nonetheless.

So far it was all looking good for a successful day, but when I got into the broadleafed forest there was silence. Where had all the birds gone? It was about half an hour before I saw anything, and that was only a couple of mountain fulvettas. Fortunately things turned around quickly after that. A white-tailed robin started off the new birds again - a glossy blue-black bird with white edges to its tail - followed soon after by a small covey of bar-backed partridges right beside the trail which casually strolled away into the jungle. Literally ten metres further on, I looked to the right and saw three largish birds darting through the undergrowth. Collared laughing thrushes! And it was still only ten o'clock. It was just totally unexpected that I actually saw this species, and they were just fantastic. Google a photo of them to see what I mean. There was a red-cheeked ground squirrel running around with the laughing thrushes too, my second squirrel of the day (the first having been a black giant squirrel about quarter of an hour earlier).

The laughing thrushes left pretty quickly, but right above me a bird-wave had appeared. There were so many birds I didn't know which to look at next. Black-crowned and mountain fulvettas, green-backed and yellow-cheeked tits, grey-headed canary-flycatchers, silver-eared mesias, a Dalat shrike-babbler, white-spectacled warblers, rufous-capped babblers, golden-throated barbets, and Mrs Gould's sunbirds. No doubt there were others that I didn't even see in all the confusion. And then there was also a red-bellied squirrel and a maritime striped squirrel in amongst the birds, making it a four-squirrel day. Like I said earlier, in montane forest you really need to luck into finding bird-waves to see a lot of species.

Then, as quickly as the birds had appeared, they vanished. Just passing through. I waited around. The Dalat shrike-babbler (a lone female) had remained behind so I hoped more birds might join her, and this paid off when a group of black-headed sibias arrived. Like many of the birds I saw today, I had only seen black-headed sibias once before, in China.

I wandered up and down the main trail a while - seeing not a single other bird! - but the other tourists start dribbling in around 11am to noon, so I chose that time to head off on one of the side-trails. There are quite a few trails here although many of them don't go for long before disintegrating into the undergrowth. I'm not sure if these are trails for bird-watchers or for bird-trappers. I suspect the latter is more likely. Anyway, I had found a very good trail last time I was here which was easy to follow and went on for a long while. I followed this today and never found the end. It starts to go downhill after a while so I think it probably leads off to a village somewhere. There was quite a bit of human debris down there - bottles, food containers, etc - so it is probably a trail that the poachers come in on.

There wasn't a lot of activity along this trail, just a small bird-wave which I never really got onto, seeing just a couple of mountain fulvettas, a black-crowned fulvetta and a Mrs Gould's sunbird; but this was followed not long after by a lesser shortwing popping in and out of a tangle of vines, whistling away and flicking its tail up and down. A great little bird. Back near the start of the trail I unexpectedly came across the collared laughing thrushes again, and one of them hopped up onto an open branch in full sun for a few seconds.

So all up a pretty brilliant day with collared laughing thrush seen well, and with three other birds also "lifers". Totally worth staying for that extra day.


28th March 2017

Brilliant! I think you actually enjoyed your day!
10th November 2017

Great blog
Great blogging here. Wish there were more who blog with such details. Thank you.

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