Having missed some of my target birds on Mount Fansipan the previous November (see “Birding on the roof of Indochina”) I made my promised return to Indochina’s highest peak in April 2009. This time I was joined by my wife Lan, and our friends Dinh Thi Hoa, Jonathan Eames and Andrew Huntley and a support team of six H’mong porters, a cook and a local guide! Having already experienced the delights of Fansipan camp accommodation on my first trip we decided to opt for sleeping in tents this time.
Arriving at Lao Cai Station on the overnight sleeper train from Hanoi early on the 17th April we were met by Khanh, our guide for the next few days. From the station we followed the winding road up to Sapa and the Victoria Sapa Resort for the best breakfast buffet north of Hanoi before beginning our climb.
The weather was bright and sunny as we set off from Tram Ton Pass and it was a fairly relaxed hike up to base camp with several stops en route to check out bird flocks. The mixed flocks at these lower elevations typically contained Bar-throated and Red-tailed Minlas, Blue-winged Siva, Red-billed Leiothrix, Golden-breasted Fulvetta, Stripe-throated Yuhina and Green-tailed Sunbird amongst others.
By early afternoon we were at base camp and tucking into a picnic lunch under blue skies. The birders in our group, that’s Jonathan and me, spent the remaining hours of daylight birding around the camp in the hope of finding the extremely elusive White-throated Wren Babbler. I had heard what I believe was this species in thick scrub just a few hundred metres from the base camp last November but despite our best efforts the White-throated Wren Babbler eluded us. We did find a pair of Crimson-breasted Woodpeckers and a White-tailed Nuthatch among one of the mixed flocks of babblers before returning to camp however which was rather nice.
The following morning began at dawn with a cup of Nescafe and a bowl of noodles and our first bird of the day, a Silver-eared Laughingthrush responding enthusiastically to a playback of its call right at our camp. It wasn’t long before we were back on the trail up to the summit camp, located at 2,800 metres. The mountain was shrouded in thick mist as we pressed on up the steep trail to the invisible summit but every now and then the cloud would miraculously lift for a few minutes to reveal spectacular views of peaks and valleys and hill sides clothed in pink rhododendron blossoms.
After a while we were in an open scrubby area looking down on thickly forested valleys and bare ridges denuded of forest by fire. There seemed to be quite a bit of bird activity and a Collared Owlet impersonation soon brought in an inquisitive mixed flock of warblers, minlas, yuhinas and sunbirds. While searching through this flock we spotted the deep shining blue and orange plumage of a male niltava perched low down in a small tree. This was almost exactly the same spot where I had seen an unidentified male niltava on my previous visit. I wasn’t 100% sure what I had seen in November but I had thought it looked very much like a Rufous-bellied Niltava a bird with no previous records from Vietnam. This time however both Jonathan and I were able to pick out the distinctive shining blue cap, shoulder patches and deep orange underparts of the Rufous-bellied Niltava.
By the time we arrived at the summit camp in the early afternoon the wind had picked up and it was beginning to drizzle. Our tents were pitched and leaving the ladies playing scrabble we headed off to look for laughingthrushes in the thick bamboo forest that surrounds the camp. The combination of cloud and drizzle made birding difficult but we did manage to see a few birds through the mist including White-browed Fulvettas and Golden Parrotbills and best of all a Sickle-billed Scimitar Babbler that flew in to a recording of Scaly Laughingthrush and perched briefly on a bamboo stem next to the trail.
After a wild and windy night we set off for the summit hoping to come across some of Fansipan’s high altitude bird specialities. I was especially keen to see some of the birds I had missed on my earlier trip. Despite the miserable weather conditions luck was with us and we found all three laughingthrush species we were hoping for, the Black-faced, Scaly and Red-winged. We also came across several White-browed Bush Robins, a Scaly-breasted Wren Babbler, White Browed Shortwing and a pair of Hill Partridges out for a stroll on the trail.
We arrived at the summit around noon and as our ever-efficient team prepared a picnic of tuna sandwiches, biscuits and fruit we toasted our success with some excellent whisky Andy had very thoughtfully brought along and posed for photographs next to the summit marker. Mission accomplished (both for the birders and the non-birders) we made our way back down to camp for our last night on Fansipan. The following day we descended at a leisurely pace to Tram Ton Pass where we were picked up and driven back to Sapa for dinner and cold beers on the terrace of the Cat Cat View Hotel.