Sapa birding, part two

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Asia » Vietnam
May 13th 2017
Published: May 18th 2017
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After a couple of day's rest at the hotel, on Wednesday morning I wasn't feeling too bad at all. And surprisingly the weather had held, remaining clear and fogless ever since Saturday. I decided to go out to the Tram Ton Pass area, which is one of the bird spots of Sapa.

About 14km northwest-ish of town is the Love Waterfall, the car-park for which is also the start of the trail up to the top of Mt. Fansipan. Technically you need a guide to use the trail, but birders work around this by the simple method of not telling anybody. I figure if you're climbing to the summit on a two- or three-day hike then, fine, a guide may be needed; but if you're just wandering around the lower stretches of the trail for the day then not so much.

There's no bus out there, so without your own transport you have to take a taxi, of either the car or motorbike varieties. The motorbike-taxis wait at the church (the same church by the Ham Rong Gardens), and there is an official price-board there. For the Tram Ton Pass the cost is 80,000 Dong one-way and 150,000 return. The price-board should make it all nice and honest, but some of the drivers will still try to circumvent that. The simplest way is to assume the tourist doesn't know the price-board is there, so they may quote you a higher price. The follow-up, when you point out the official prices, is to just point at a different destination which has the price they want, and say that that is the place you're going (e.g. the board says "Sapa to Tram Ton", not "Sapa to Love Waterfall", so they'll try to tell you that the Love Waterfall is at some other location).

I had no idea how long I'd be out at Tram Ton for - it would depend on what the trail was like, what the weather did, and how my head coped - so I just took a one-way ride and the guy gave me his phone number to call for coming back. I figured I could probably hitch back to town (which I did, with an old Australian couple on a tour) but if not I had the option.

At the car-park there are several paths to take. The one at the far end by the ticket box leads to the Love Waterfall, which costs 70,000 to visit. Left of that is the new trail to the top of Mt. Fansipan. Left of that is the old trail which is the one you want as a birder. And the fourth one, just beside the road (so the first one as you enter the car-park), is a long set of stone steps leading up to a look-out with a bell. You can get to the old Fansipan trail unseen by going up these steps, and at the bell just keep going until you connect with the trail. Once you're on the trail you are unlikely to meet anyone at all. Being of honest blood, I asked the guard at the ticket box if I could go on the trail because I was just birding with no plans on going to the summit, and he said I could go on there for twenty minutes alone. I totally mis-heard him, and thought he said "yes, sure, stay on there all day if you like."

The forest here is one of those places where for a lot of the time there is just nothing - no birds, no song - and then suddenly there will be a bird flock pulsing through, loads of activity for five or ten minutes, and then nothing for another hour. Masses of invertebrates though! Fortunately none of the leech or mosquito variety, but I can't remember the last time I had so many insects on me as I walked through a forest, everything from a baby stick insect to a luminous-lime weevil to caterpillars to longicorn beetles to froghoppers.

Not as fun were the sweat bees. I normally don't mind sweat bees - they are completely harmless and just want your sweat - but when there is no sweat then they go for your eyes instead. Usually you get one or two which is no problem. Here they were in little clouds of ten or twenty bees. They land under your eye and try to drink the moisture there, which automatically makes you blink and they end up inside your eyelid. And because there are several of them there's the uncomfortable feeling of something trying to burrow into your eyes. They drove me absolutely mad all day.

I didn't see many birds during the day, just ten species in all (and six of those were all at once in one bird-wave!), but it was nice being out and birding in a forest with actual birds in it. Of those ten birds, two were new for my life list and five were new for the trip list.

The first bird for the day was a fork-tailed swift swooping past (and another three swifts a bit later which were too obscured by the trees to see properly). It wasn't for another hour or so before the next birds showed, but this was the bird-wave I mentioned. First to appear were whiskered yuhinas, heard long before they became visible, accompanied by a chestnut-vented nuthatch. Nuthatches proved to be common up here and I saw many of them - both chestnut-vented and white-tailed - over the day. Immediately after, a black-faced warbler appeared in the bamboo beside me, and while I was trying to photograph it a golden parrotbill flashed into the same bamboo stand and then continued on its way. The warbler and parrotbill were the two lifers for the day. I followed the path round to try and re-locate the parrotbill, but found a pair of fulvous-winged fulvettas instead. A female rosy minivet finished off the total for the flock.

There wasn't much seen for most of the day after that, a few individuals of yuhinas and more nuthatches, but there were also some of the local race of yellow-cheeked tits. Eventually I ended up back at the spot where I'd encountered the bird-wave so just hung around there for an hour or so being tormented by the sweat bees. It paid off though, when a male sapphire flycatcher turned up, and then some more black-faced warblers and whiskered yuhinas as well.

I returned to the area the next morning. To start the day I paid the 70,000 for entry to the Love Waterfall, which I had missed yesterday. The waterfall is about a kilometre from the car-park along a paved track and it is a really nice waterfall I must say. The route is supposed to be good for birds, but not today. Literally the only birds seen were a white wagtail on the way (of the pretty alboides race), and at the waterfall a pair of plumbeous water redstarts with a brood of fledglings. The latter species was the first of the trip and the first I'd seen in Vietnam, so that's good, and I even got some good photos of them. But otherwise the whole first part of the morning was wasted.

I then went up to the look-out by the road so that I could continue on unseen to the old Fansipan trail. In the forest I discovered that all the oxygen in the air had been replaced with sweat bees.

The birds were more evenly spaced out today than yesterday, so it wasn't long before I encountered a small bird-wave consisting of white-collared yuhinas (a lifer), blue-winged minlas, and a black-faced warbler. The latter species was the regular bird of the day, being seen everywhere along the trail.

A short while later I came across another bird-wave. This one appeared to be composed of several species of babblers but frustratingly it was on a stretch of the trail which was almost literally vertical and I was having to look up at the birds without being able to get to their level without scaring them off. Mostly I could just see the ferns and grasses moving, with a half-second glimpse every so often as a bird moved through an empty gap. Nothing I could get a fix on in time. As I clambered up the mud bank which was the trail (the steps having long since fallen away) I thought I saw a white-browed fulvetta, which would have been a lifer, but in the end I left it off the list because I wasn't sure.

When I got to the "magic spot" from yesterday where I had seen my only bird-wave of the day, there was silence. But not for long. A couple of black-faced warblers turned up, then white-collared yuhinas and blue-winged minlas - perhaps even the same ones from earlier. In a cluster of trees above me was a pair of verditer flycatchers, and a flock of black-throated tits accompanied by a couple of yellow-browed tits which was the second lifer for the day. They look more like warblers than proper tits. Then there were more minlas, a white-tailed warbler, and a chestnut-vented nuthatch as well. I hung around here for a couple of hours with the same sorts of birds coming and going. An ashy-throated warbler also came by at one point in the company of another black-faced warbler. I think this is the best spot on the lower trail.

At about 3pm I headed back the way I'd come, and down the trail ran straight into the babbler-wave from earlier, except this time the birds were at a section of trail which was fairly flat so I could follow them along as I tried to get looks at them. There were at least five species of babblers there, one of which I didn't get to ID on the views I got. I didn't see any white-browed fulvettas but there were no fewer than three other fulvettas in the flock - rufous-winged, Manipur and rusty-capped, the last two being lifers - as well as rufous-capped babblers.

As per yesterday, I got back to town by waiting in the car-park until some tourists came back from the waterfall and asking if I could get a ride. Today's lucky recipients of my company were a pair of French-Canadian sisters. Their hotel was on the opposite side of town to mine, which turns out to be the foreign-tourist side. I counted four shops for outdoor gear on one street alone, pizza restaurants, tour operators. My side of town has motorbike repair shops, soup restaurants, and general stores. I like my side better.


It turned out that those two days on the lower Fansipan trail were the only good days of the whole two weeks I spent in Sapa. On Friday it was raining. Saturday and Sunday was obviously the weekend again so I put off doing anything, which in hindsight was a mistake because on Monday I got sick again! I think it was probably something I ate on Sunday. I had decided I would definitely be going to the summit of Mt. Fansipan if the weather was manageable, sat up in bed early Monday morning, and just about threw up. I actually spent the next ten minutes sitting beside the toilet waiting to vomit, with that awkward feeling of knowing that you are 100%!a(MISSING)bout to throw up but you're not throwing up. So you're waiting... waiting... then I went back to bed with nothing happening, went back to sleep for a couple of hours, and then spent the rest of the day being thoroughly miserable.

Tuesday I wasn't feeling like I was going to vomit but still felt poorly, and I had one of those piercing headaches like someone is drilling through your temple, and that lasted through to Thursday. On Saturday morning I returned to Bangkok with very little to show for the time I spent in Sapa. I never did get to the summit of Mt. Fansipan to look for the red-throated ground squirrel (an upper-montane species, of which the type-locality was this mountain), but that's life. At least I saw some birds while in Sapa.


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