Birding on the roof of Indochina

At 3,143 metres, Mount Fansipan is Indochina’s highest mountain. Due to its height and proximity to China, the higher elevations of Fansipan are home to some fantastic birds many of which cannot be found anywhere else in Vietnam. We regularly visit Sapa on Vietnam Birding tours to bird the lower elevations of Fansipan at around 2,000 metres but I had long wanted to take a look higher up the mountain for some of those high altitude rarities. My chance finally came in October, in theory a good time of the year to attempt the climb, and I booked a flight up to Hanoi and a ticket on the overnight train to Lao Cai and Sapa.

Bamboo forest on Fansipan

Once in Sapa I made arrangements for the climb and set off a couple of days later with my Vietnamese guide/cook and H’mong porter. Unfortunately the weather had taken a turn for the worse overnight and we set off with a light drizzle falling and Fansipan shrouded in thick white cloud. The going was slow on muddy trails and slippery rocks and it wasn’t until early afternoon that we reached base camp at 2,200 metres above sea level, which was rather discouragingly just 200 metres higher than our starting point at Tram Ton Pass.

The remaining hours of daylight were spent exploring the forest and scrub around the camp. Three species of yuhina – Stripe-throated, Whiskered and White-collared – were common in mixed flocks around the camp as were Chestnut-flanked White-Eye, Red-billed Leiothrix, Bar-throated Minla and Streak-throated Fulvetta. One of Fansipan’s most elusive birds, the recently-split and now endemic White-throated Wren Babbler, gave us the run-around as it responded to playback of its call from thick scrub near the camp but stubbornly refused to show itself.

A young Red-winged Laughingthrush      goes walkabout

A H’mong porter passed through the camp during the afternoon on his way down the mountain with a couple of weary climbers in tow. In his hand he held a short bamboo stick on which a recently-fledged Red-winged Laughingthrush perched. I wondered what fate lay in store for this poor little fellow.

After a restless night’s sleep in a bamboo hut, during which the rain drummed incessantly on the tin roof and a hungry rodent gnawed through my backpack to get at a chocolate bar inside, we were up at dawn and were soon on the trail heading to the summit camp at 2,800 metres. There was no let-up in the rain as we scrambled up muddy slopes, over moss-covered rocks and through grassy clearings where fires a few years back had destroyed the natural forest cover. We finally reached our destination, the summit camp, at around one o’clock in the afternoon.

Sitting on the Roof of Indochina
My plan was to spend the afternoon looking for some of Fansipan’s high elevation laughingthrushes in the bamboo forest that encompassed the camp but the mist and rain made birding impossible so after dumping our bags at the camp we decided to press on up the mountain to see if the weather was any better higher up. After an hour and a half the cloud miraculously cleared and twenty minutes later we were sitting on the “Roof of Indochina” in glorious sunshine.

Despite our unplanned conquest of Indochina’s highest summit we hadn’t yet found any of the birds we were hoping to see but with the sun now shining our luck changed. Just a few metres below the summit we came across our first target bird of the afternoon, a female White-browed Bush Robin skulking in a clump of bamboo. This was followed a few minutes later by an inquisitive pair of Red-winged Laugingthrushes and a very confiding Scaly-breasted Wren Babbler. Our good fortune wasn’t to last long however as the cloud descended once again and the rain resumed normal service.

Meditating monk at Base Camp

Back at the summit camp fellow climbers with guides and porters had been arriving all afternoon and it was looking like it was going to be a full house at the “Fansipan Hilton”. In addition to climbers, guides and porters, the summit camp had four long-staying guests, a group of Buddhist monks who had decided to spend the winter meditating on the mountain.

I doubt if anybody in the hut that night got more than a couple of hours of sleep as we lay packed tightly in the drafty hut in rows like sardines on the bamboo platform. Morning finally arrived, damp and cold, and after a quick bowl of instant noodles and a cup of three-in-one Nestcafé we were off heading down the mountain.

At the “Fansipan Hilton”
At the “Fansipan Hilton”

Thirty minutes later we tracked down another of Fansipan’s sought-after birds, Silver-eared Laughingthrush, (formerly treated as a subspecies of Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush), in the gloom of a bamboo thicket. A little further on another recent split, the endemic Pale-throated Wren Babbler, was added to the day’s bird list.

Although descending a mountain is generally much faster than climbing up, the rain and slippery conditions coupled with aching thighs and knees made the going slow. We finally arrived back at Hoang Lien National Park HQ on the Tram Ton Pass around 1pm where thankfully a car was waiting to drive us back to Sapa and hot showers and a late lunch.

Considering how unlucky we had been with the weather we were pretty pleased with the birds we had seen but a return visit to the summit of Fansipan next spring is already being planned to look for some of the species we missed and I am keeping my fingers firmly crossed for better weather!

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