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Dining with vultures in Siem Pang


Lunchtime at Siem Pang 
Lunchtime at Siem Pang    
In July I was fortunate enough to spend a week in Siem Pang, northern Cambodia, with Jonathan Eames, Programme Manager at BirdLife in Indochina, and his BirdLife Cambodia team. The main purpose of the trip for BirdLife was to meet with participants in their recently established Site Support Group scheme and to monitor its progress to date. For me, it was an opportunity to look at the tourism potential for Siem Pang and in particular the potential for birding tourism.

For all of us however there was another reason for making the long trek up to Siem Pang – the chance to attend one of BirdLife’s monthly vulture restaurants. This area of northern Cambodia is one of the very few places left in South-East Asia where it is possible to see vultures in any numbers. With the exception of Burma vultures have all but disappeared from the countries of mainland South-East Asia.

Green Peafowl
Green Peafowl
The journey to Siem Pang was an adventure in itself involving a full day’s drive from Phnom Penh to Stung Treng and then a 5-hour cruise by motorised canoe up the Stung Kong, a tributary of the Mekong, to Siem Pang. The river was teeming with birdlife. Green Peafowl and Grey-headed Fishing Eagle perched in the branches of riverside trees while Stork-billed Kingfishers darted up and down the water’s edge. Great Thick-Knee, River Lapwing, River Tern and Mekong Wagtail were among the birds found on a sandy island where we had stopped to stretch our legs and a count of 140 Oriental Darters along the river was remarkable.

White-shouldered Ibis
White-shouldered Ibis   
Staying at the wooden stilted house that houses the BirdLife office at Siem Pang we explored the dry deciduous and semi-evergreen forest, grasslands and seasonal freshwater pools known as trapeangs by motorcycle. This remote area of northern Cambodia is one of the remaining refuges for some of the world’s rarest birds including the critically-endangered White-shouldered and Giant Ibis.

We were fortunate to see both ibises including several large flocks of White-shouldered Ibis, one of which numbered around 50 birds. Other large waterbirds seen included several large flocks of Woolly-necked Storks circling overhead and wonderful scope views were had of a rather lonely Black-necked Stork, Lesser Adjutant and Asian Openbill Stork. In the dipterocarp forest the White-rumped Falcon, Collared Faclonet and Rufous-winged Buzzard were fairly common while brlliant yellow male Golden Weavers flitted around in the reed beds.             

The birds we had really come to see however were vultures, and we weren’t disappointed. BirdLife’s monthly vulture restaurants provide a convenient means of monitoring vulture numbers while at the same time providing a good square meal for the local vulture population.

Red-headed vulture
Red-headed vulture
A bullock was slaughtered the previous day and left in a forest clearing around twenty metres away from a camouflaged hide where we sat with scopes and bins at the ready. Small groups of vultures were already gathering in the trees around the clearing when we arrived at the hide early the next morning but the first visitor was a Golden Jackal that had already taken a few bites out of the rump of the bullock carcass.

 
Golden Jackal & Red-headed vulture
Golden Jackal & Red-headed vulture   
We had been waiting for around two hours by the time the first brave vulture made a move and with heavy wing beats dropped down from the trees and hopped over to the carcass. This was the signal the others had been waiting for and within seconds the whole group of vultures noisily descended on the bullock. Then it was a free-for-all as 30 plus White-rumped, 3 Slender-billed and 6 Red-headed Vultures bickered, squabbled and gorged themselves. Two hours later the bullock carcass had been reduced to a pile of skin and bones.

Contact us at info@vietnambirding.com  to arrange your own custom birding tour to Siem Pang. To learn more about BirdLife in Indochina’s work in Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar visit www.birdlifeindochina.org


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