Birding by cable car

Fansipan Summit Cable Car Station
Fansipan Summit Cable Car Station

Following the opening of a new cable car system to the summit of Vietnam’s highest peak earlier in the year, a return trip to Mount Fansipan was needed. So on the 11th October 2016, Vietnam Birding head guide, Le Quy Minh, one of our old Vietnam birding pals, Florian Klingel, and myself, set off from Hanoi on the brand spanking new highway north to Lao Cai and Sapa. This unique Vietnamese highway (no motorbikes and only the occasional car or bus) has reduced the journey time from a 10-hour drive or a tedious overnight train journey to just five hours, door to door.

Arriving at Sapa it was a quite shock to see the centre of this once peaceful hill station transformed into a huge construction site with cranes towering over the town and trucks and cement mixers thundering through the narrow streets. The new super fast highway makes Sapa’s wide open landscapes and mountain air easily accessible for weekend trips away from Hanoi’s polluted, traffic-clogged streets. And of course as all these visitors need somewhere to stay we have a construction boom.

White-browed Fulvetta
White-browed Fulvetta

At 7 am the following morning we were ready and waiting at the entrance gate of the very grand cable car station to take the first car of the day up to the summit. Unfortunately the weather was not behaving and we made the journey to the summit station with our cabin shrouded in thick mist. After 20 minutes we arrived … at another construction site! Religious tourism seems to be the way to go at the summit area with a complex of pagodas, temples and an enormous Buddha statue under construction.

Chestnut-headed Tesia
Chestnut-headed Tesia

From the temple complex it is possible to join the old trekking trail to the summit we took on previous visits back down the mountain. We did this and spent the best part of a day birding between the summit area at around 3,100 metres down and the second camp at 2,800 metres. Conditions were not the best, with thick mist and light rain for much of the day interspersed with occasional periods of sunshine. A combination of the bad weather, disturbance from the construction works and an apparent die-off of much of the mature bamboo forest in the area meant that birds were very thin on the ground. In the remaining thickets of bamboo we found a few busy little groups of White-browed Fulvettas and several chirpy little Chestnut-headed Tesias, their bright yellow and chestnut plumage brightening up the gloom. We also located a couple of pairs of Stripe-throated Yuhinas in the mist but the best birds of the day were first a pair of Black-faced Laughingthrushes going quietly about their business, then a similarly subdued pair of Scaly Laughingthrushes skulking in the dense undergrowth. Two species rarely seen in South-East Asia and at the eastern limit of their Himalayan distribution here at Fansipan.

Pale-throated Wren-babbler
Pale-throated Wren-babbler

More bad weather the following two days meant further exploration around the summit area of Fansipan had to be abandoned and we focused on the lower sections of Fansipan around Tram Ton Pass. The weather was better here and so was the birding with highlights being a Wood Snipe flushed almost from under our feet, a skulking pair of Slaty Blue Flycatchers, several Sapphire Flycatchers and the much sought-after Pale-throated Wren-babbler. This last species still appears to be fairly common in the area as it had been a few years ago when we last found it here. We came across several mixed feeding flocks typically including Yellow-browed and Yellow-cheeked tits, Chestnut-vented and White-tailed nuthatches, Black-faced and Buff-barred warblers, Bar-throated Minlas and Blue-winged Sivas. Another scarce bird in Vietnam that we encountered several times here was Great Barbet. Interestingly, one of the most common species at this site on previous visits, Red-billed Leiothrix, was not seen at all in two days. The fact that this species is a popular cage bird in Vietnam may have something to do with their mysterious disappearance from this fast developing tourist area!

White-tailed Nuthatch
White-tailed Nuthatch

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