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Outskirts tour teems with watch-worthy birds

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
(Top left to right): Grassbird perched on a lotus stem and a blue winged pitta, which is only seen in this area from June to August each year. (Bottom left to right): An oriental pratincole doesn’t mind getting dusty while the Chinese pond heron lives up to its species’ name. SUPPLIED

Outskirts tour teems with watch-worthy birds

If you're short on time but you long to experience the scenic views of the Kingdom’s great outdoors – including a wide variety of its species of wildlife – then you’re in luck, because the wilds of Cambodia can actually be reached just by going on a day trip excursion from Phnom Penh.

A new tour focused on birdwatching around the wetlands, lakes and rivers not far from the capital’s outskirts is being planned and organised by an experienced guide.

Many Cambodians are unaware of the large bird habitat situated near the city, but with the assistance of a guide they will have the opportunity to become more familiar with the landscape of their country and see many different species of birds as well as Instagram-friendly views of nature with lakes, rivers and lotus ponds as the backdrop.

“Previously, Cambodian people have not been very interested in going on these trips. But foreign visitors tend to be very interested when they are here. Since November, 2021 – when the Royal Government announced the reopening of the country – we’ve gotten a few foreigners who have taken tours but it’s nowhere near the numbers we saw before the pandemic as yet.

“This is the first birdwatching trip near Phnom Penh for my company post-Covid,” says Chea Thong, founder of Vana Adventure Travel and the organiser of the birdwatching tour.

Thong says that before Covid-19, his company was the only one that organised birdwatching trips on the outskirts of the capital, along with other activities such as cycling and hiking.

The outskirts birdwatching tour is designed for visitors who are on a tight schedule and don’t want to waste time, but still want to see some water birds in their natural habitat of wetlands, lakes and rivers.

They start at 5:30am, travelling by car from the Arey Ksat ferry landing to Lvea Em, about 8 km away from the Svay Andet pagoda.

“Instead of meeting at a cafe in the city like we used to, now we meet at the ferry landing and head to the border area with 7NG in Lvea Em district, where one side is a river and the other side is a big lake,” Thong tells The Post.

“And that big lake is full of water birds like herons, wild ducks, water hens and gulls,” he says.

Arriving at the waterfront in the early morning, visitors can admire the beauty of the bright yellow sunrise. If it’s birdwatching they’re after, then they will be thrilled because there are hundreds of thousands of water birds in the area – more birds than any one person could train their binoculars on in an entire lifetime.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Cambodian tailorbird: First discovered by scientists in 2009 near Phnom Penh. SUPPLIED

“Unfortunately, due to current developments, we aren’t seeing as many birds as we did before the pandemic period,” says Thong, who is an expert on Cambodia’s landscape and for years has guided tourists who wanted to explore far-flung regions of the Kingdom.

Some species of birds can be spotted up close because there are so many of them and they aren’t shy around humans, but for others – such as wild ducks – the birdwatching has to be done at a distance through a telescope, which Thong can provide for tourists who aren’t quite avid enough about all things avian to have brought their own along.

During the trip, tourists are given a bird guide to see which of Cambodia’s feathered friends they spot while there.

Towards the end of the visit a special outing is undertaken to the far side of the lake in order to see the Cambodian tailorbird, which has a grey body with a reddish-orange tuft on the top of its head that makes them look like ginger-haired birds.

The shape of their ginger tuft seems to vary quite a bit in pictures of them – some are neatly parted to the side, others are sticking straight up like the bird just rolled out of bed.

The Cambodian tailorbird was first discovered and recorded by scientists in 2009 in Phnom Penh during an avian influenza check of any and all species of birds endemic to Cambodia.

Scientists believe it is likely that the species’ entire range is confined to a single dense shrub habitat in the floodplain of the Mekong River near Phnom Penh – the very one, of course, that Thong brings his tours to see from a safe distance.

“Before watching the Cambodian tailorbirds we set up chairs, tripods and a low-noise speaker system to lure them out of the lowlands,” Thong said. “Visitors can sit and take pictures as the little birds jump about in the trees and come out to investigate one-by-one.”

Along with the tailorbirds, they can also usually spot rufescent prinia, scaly-breasted munia, little green bee eaters, pied bushchat, pied fantail and – if they are lucky – purple sunbirds, kingfishers and large billed crows.

On some tours they take people over to the lotus ponds, where this season the area is a highlighted by the beauty of countless pink flowers floating on carpets of lush green leaves.

Thong sets up chairs near the lotus ponds where they can view the lotus flowers and watch birds such as herons, oriental pratincoles and gulls before having breakfast.

After breakfast and resting near the lotus ponds for a while, they start walking through the lotus fields to see the oriental pratincoles at closer range.

“At this time of the year, they are flying up and down and laying eggs on the ground, so we have to be careful about not stepping on their eggs,” says Thong. “Children herding cows or cutting lotus also pick their eggs and boil them for a snack.”

The lotus pond area is also home to some other elusive species – including grassbirds – which love making noise with their beautiful birdcalls, but use their green colouring to hide in the surrounding bushes.

“When we hear their voices, we get comfortable because it can take a while watching before you spot any. Grassbirds are the hardest sparrows to see. There are also kingfishers of many kinds in the ponds, such as blue and white or small and large.”

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Expats enjoy sightseeing and watching waterbirds on the capital’s outskirts. SUPPLIED

At about 10:30am or 11:00am, visitors continue their tour by proceeding over to the Diamond Crown Pagoda near Arey Ksat, where they can see a few more species like the greater coucal and blue winged pitta, especially during their mating and nesting season between June and August.

The blue winged pitta flit in and out of the surrounding bushes, but the species does not appear in large numbers there – only one or two at a time – and the exact location of their primary habitat remains a mystery.

Thong also gave The Post his list of the top or most requested birds on his tour: Cambodian tailorbird, blue winged pitta, Chinese pond heron, zebra dove, Indian roller, little green bee eaters, white-breasted water hens purple swamp hens, pheasant-tailed jacana, bronze-winged jacana, little cormorants,little ringed plovers, whimbrel, cattle egret, Javan pond-heron, common snipe, common greenshank and brown shrike.

Anyone taking the outskirts birdwatching tour will board the bus at Arey Ksat ferry landing and they will be dropped off at the same spot afterwards in order to return to Phnom Penh.

Thong says the tours usually conclude with a lunch or dinner at a restaurant in the urban surroundings of central Phnom Penh, but some groups opt to bring picnic meals along with them on the tour and eat out at the birdwatching site.

“About 11:30am or noon our journey is over,” said Thong. “But if the tour group would like to get lunch or dinner together with the guides, we will make arrangements with a good restaurant that has seating for the whole group, whatever its size happens to be.”

For more details on the capital outskirts birdwatching tour call 012 883 898 or check out their Facebook page: @vanaadventuretravel

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