A Birding Bonanza in the Red River Delta

Con Lu Island
Con Lu Island

A weekend visit to the northern Vietnam’s Red River Delta in October turned out to be a memorable birding experience with Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Chinese Egret and Black-faced Spoonbill among the many highlights of the two days.

It all started at the unearthly hour of four in the morning with Jonathan Eames, Stephan Lauper and myself setting off through the pre-dawn dark of Hanoi towards Xuan Thuy National Park, three hours’ drive away in the Red River Delta.

The excitement began just after dawn when still half an hour from Xuan Thuy we clambered up a roadside embankment to watch 150 Black Bazas spiraling upwards from their roost and heading off like a black cloud to continue their migration south.

On arrival at Xuan Thuy we were soon aboard a fishing boat weaving our through bamboo fences and fishing nets towards Con Lu. This sandy little island, the size of four football pitches, is an unlikely looking place to spend a weekend birding, planted with weather-beaten casuarina trees and littered with discarded polystyrene floats, fishing nets and flip-flops. Yet twice a year, in April and October, Con Lu offers one of the most exciting birding experiences to be found anywhere in Vietnam.

Our fishing boat was unable to get close enough to drop us directly on Con Lu so holding backpacks and optics above our heads we waded through chest-high water to the island. Once on the island we deposited our backpacks and food supplies under a shady casuarina and walking in a line began a sweep of the island like beaters on a pheasant shoot.

Con Lu
Con Lu’s casuarina and polystyrene habitat

Birds were literally flying out from under our feet as we slowly made our way through the short clumps of grass, washed up vegetation and stands of casuarinas. Asian Brown and Red-throated Flycatchers, Siberian Rubythroats, Stonechats, Dusky and Lancelolated Warblers and Olive-backed Pipits were flushed from the ground while Lesser Coucals, Brown Shrikes and Spangled Drongos reluctantly flew from tree to tree on tired wings on our approach. 

In the shade of the casuarinas exhausted Orange-headed and Siberian Thrushes searched on the ground for sustenance before continuing their journey south. Twice we flushed a Yellow-legged Buttonquail which flew out to sea, landed on the water for a few seconds, and then headed back to dry land. Among the casuarinas we found an Oriental Scops Owl, Grey Nightjar, a female Japanese Paradise-Flycatcher, several skittish Scaly Thrushes, Yellow-streaked Warbler and a lone Yellow-breasted Bunting.

Orange-headed Thrush
Orange-headed Thrush

The raptors were enjoying the birding just as much as we were and the remains of several unfortunate migrants including an unidentified rail and a Chestnut-winged Cuckoo were found on the island. Among the raptors seen patrolling Con Lu during our visits were a Crested Goshawk, Japanese and Eurasian Sparrowhawks, a Northern Goshawk and Peregrine Falcon. 

After several hours searching for migrants among the casuarinas and with the tide rising we decided to try for roosting waders at the northern end of the island, and just as well we did. In amongst the hundreds of roosting plovers and dunlin, thanks to Jonathan’s patient scanning and experienced eye, two critically-endangered Spoon-billed Sandpipers were located. The Spoon-billed Sandpiper is a bird in big trouble with a declining world population thought to be somewhere between 200 and 300 birds, so any sighting is cause for celebration.

A Birding Bonanza in the Red River Delta
Three pairs of wet pants

In addition to the Spoon-billed Sandpipers we also found another wintering speciality of Xuan Thuy, Black-faced Spoonbill, with a couple of roosting birds among the shrimp ponds within the national park and a brief flyover by another individual.

Before heading back to Hanoi on the Sunday afternoon we made a detour to Thai Thuy, a two-hour drive along the coast from Xuan Thuy. We scanned the mangroves for a while on arrival at Thai Thuy but things were fairly quiet with Common Greenshank, Marsh Sandpiper, Whiskered Terns and a fly-by pair of Pied Harriers among the birds seen. It was now late afternoon as we drove along a track to an area of ponds, scrub and open grass where large roosts of starlings and egrets had been recorded in the past.


Small groups of egrets, mynas and starlings were beginning to assemble in the trees and bushes on the far side of the ponds as we arrived. Within an hour there were a couple of hundred egrets settled in the branches of some dead trees while a small tree a few hundred metres away was full noisy, jostling mynas and starlings.

A careful examination of the egrets revealed no less than 10 Chinese Egrets, a species listed as vulnerable by BirdLife International. We then decided to take a closer look at the starling roost where amongst the Crested Mynas and White-shouldered Starlings we picked out a couple of White-cheeked Starlings, a Red-billed Starling and two Common Starlings, not a bird that would excite the average European or North American but quite a rarity here in Vietnam.

Leaving Thai Thuy as darkness fell we arrived back in Hanoi around 9.30 a little weary but elated from a weekend birding bonanza in the Red River Delta. Many thanks to Jonathan for his wonderful hospitality in Hanoi and to both Jonathan and Stephan for a fabulous weekend.

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