We were relaxing in the late afternoon sunshine with a cold beer on the roof terrace of our Sapa guest house having just returned from a four-day trek to the summit of nearby Mount Fansipan (see “Return to Fansipan”) when Jonathan received a text message from a colleague at the BirdLife in Indochina office in Hanoi. The brief message read something along the lines of “4 WENH at Ba Be yesterday”.
We had just enjoyed four days of fabulous birding on Vietnam’s highest peak during which time we had seen some wonderful birds and I had added a few more ticks to my Vietnam bird list but even so it was difficult not to feel just a little unsettled on reading that short SMS message. The WENH in the text message referred to one of Asia’s least-known and most elusive birds, the White-eared Night-heron. Found only in a small area of southern China and north-eastern Vietnam, the White-eared Night-heron is highly endangered with an estimated global population somewhere between 250-999 individuals.
That evening we were taking the overnight train back to Hanoi and I was then flying directly back to Ho Chi Minh City with my wife the following morning. Jonathan had to return to his office in Hanoi but he had already decided he would be going to Ba Be National Park that weekend to look for the night-herons while there was still a reasonable chance of them being around. It was just too good an opportunity to miss out on so the first thing I did on arriving back in Ho Chi Minh City was to book a flight back up to Hanoi for two days’ time.
On arrival in Hanoi I met up with Jonathan and along with Ananda, a colleague from BirdLife in Indochina, and Vietnam Birdwatching Club founder, Hung, we headed north to Ba Be National Park. After a long six-hour drive on bumpy, winding roads we eventually arrived at Ba Be and checked into the cosy little wooden guest house run by Mr Chat and his wife. Mr Chat, who is also a park ranger at Ba Be National Park, has taken a keen interest in the welfare of these very special birds.
After a briefing from Chat, and with a detailed map drawn by BirdLife’s John Pilgrim who had seen the birds the previous weekend while we were up in Sapa, we set off by motorcycle through the rice fields in search of night-herons. The plan was to get in position on the edge of a maize field with a clear view down a river valley between forested limestone cliffs where the night-herons were thought to roost by day.
We were there well before dusk, the time the birds had previously been seen flying through the valley to their night time feeding grounds. It seemed like we waited for an eternity but as the last remaining light began to fail and we were about to give up three birds flew along the valley high up in front of the limestone cliff face. With a powerful spotlight we were able to identify them as White-eared Night-herons but the views were far from satisfying. We spent the following couple of hours searching by spotlight in the dark for their nocturnal feeding site but as rain began to fall we called it a day and headed to back to the guest house for dinner.
The following morning we decided to try and locate the daytime roosting site of the night-herons which we knew must be close by and amazingly after just ten minutes Hung spotted a night-heron silhouetted in the morning sun high up in a tree. Through binoculars we could make out a juvenile White-eared Night-heron, and then nearby a second juvenile bird and a large untidy nest. We needed to get closer so we clambered up the craggy limestone cliff face to a vantage point that was level with the nest site, about 20 metres up.
From here we had fabulous views of both the juvenile birds and then the adult birds for near on two hours before we decided it was time to head back to Chat’s place for lunch before the long drive back to Hanoi.
What a fantastic couple of days it had been. Not only had we had mind-blowing views of the highly endangered White-eared Night-heron but we were also able to get some of the first ever photos of the species in the wild and confirm for the first time that White-eared Night-heron is breeding in Vietnam.