The White-throated Wren-babbler adventure

The mysterious and little-known endemic White-throated Wren-babbler

In November 2010 Jonathan Eames and Simon Mahood found and mist-netted one of the Vietnam’s most mysterious birds, the little-known endemic White-throated Wren-babbler Rimator pasquieri, a bird so scarce that it has been seen by only a handful of people since its discovery in 1929. The following April I joined Jonathan on a return visit to Mu Cang Chai Species and Habitat Conservation Area in a remote part of north-western Vietnam, along with our intrepid partners Hoa and Lan. Our targets in addition to the White-throated Wren-babbler, were two other enigmatic birds with no recent records from Vietnam, Ward’s Trogon Harpactes wardi and Rufous-necked Hornbill Aceros nipalensis.

After a grueling journey of seven hours by car and five hours by motorcycle on treacherously slippery mountain trails we arrived at Na Hang, the last H’mong settlement and the end of the road. It was too late in the day to attempt the steep three-hour ascent through evergreen forest and dense bamboo thickets to our camp site deep in the forest, so we pitched our tents for the night in a clearing between the wooden longhouses at Na Hang.

A grueling journey on treacherously slippery mountain trails

The next morning we were up at dawn for the final stretch of our journey accompanied by seven H’mong rangers loaded up with bags of rice, great hunks of pork, a wicker basket of live chickens and a substantial supply of rice wine to sustain us over the coming days. We arrived at the camping area around three hours later and after setting up our tents and eating lunch we set off to explore the area. Within five minutes of leaving camp we had a White-throated Wren-babbler responding to a recording of its call and then almost immediately it hopped out of the bamboo and into view at eye-level right in front of us. If only all birding was this straightforward!

We decided to set up mist-nets along the ride through the bamboo where we had found our wren-babbler to try and catch one for a closer look. Returning thirty minutes later we saw we had a bird dangling in the fine nylon net and sure enough on closer inspection it was a White-throated Wren-babbler. We carefully untangled our little captive and took a series of photographs before releasing it a few minutes later. Other birds that turned up in our nets over the following days included Bianchi’s Warbler, Rufous-capped Babbler, Streak-throated Fulvetta and a very handsome male White-tailed Robin

A closer look

The rest of our time at Mu Cang Chai was devoted to searching for Ward’s Trogon and Rufous-necked Hornbill. Despite the many hours we put in over the course of the following days, sitting quietly inside the forest searching the canopy for the trogon and perched on a lookout high above a forested valley scanning for the hornbill we didn’t find either. Unfortunately the weather was against us much of the time with frequent downpours and one day of continual rain but the habitat looked excellent for these two species and a return visit in drier conditions may be more successful.