Cambodia: Birding the Khmer Kingdom

The expansive forests and untouched wetlands of this small country harbor some of the rarest species of birds and mammals in Asia. In recent years a number of hugely exciting discoveries have been made, including a healthy population of the near-mythical Giant Ibis, a new species—the Mekong Wagtail, and a breeding population of the rapidly declining eastern race of Sarus Crane. In addition, a healthy breeding population of White-shouldered Ibis has been found in the northern province of Preah Vihear along with White-winged Duck, Green Peafowl, and White-rumped Falcon. On the wetlands around the amazing Tonle Sap Lake, enormous breeding colonies of waterbirds represent one of the finest birding spectacles in Asia. Healthy populations of Greater Adjutant, the still relatively common Lesser Adjutant, Milky Stork, and Spot-billed Pelican can also be observed nesting at Preak Toal. The most extensive grasslands remaining in Southeast Asia are where we seek more scarce beauties, in particular Bengal Florican and Manchurian Reed-Warbler. A number of other species, uncommon in neighboring countries, can be found here in abundance: Rufous-winged Buzzard, Black-headed Woodpecker, and Comb Duck among them.




Day 1: Siem Reap. Upon arrival you will be transferred to a Siem Reap hotel for a 4-night stay.

Day 2: Ankor Wat. Today we will have a full day visiting the ancient temples at Ankor, which means “City of Temples”. The main temple dates back to the 12th Century, and is the largest religious building in the world. Another highlight of the complex is the atmospheric and overgrown Ta Phrom, where large fig trees have breached the temple walls in many places, making it unique and wonderful to stand in where there is this eclectic mix of ancient man and modern nature coming together so seamlessly. This particular building became famous for appearing in the Tomb Raider movie starring Angelie Jolie. Ta Phrom is also a great place for Alexandrine & Red-breasted Parakeets. Other temples that we will visit during the day will include Preah Khan, the impressively restored Baphuon, and Bayon, understandably one of the most famous temples here. Although serious birders would not miss the chance to visit Ankor for their architectural significance, it is also, in actual fact a good birding site it its own right. Oriental Pied-Hornbills, Shikras & Lineated Barbets are common in the complex, and other birds we are likely to come across include Brown-backed Needletail, Brown Hawk-Owl, Asian Barred Owlet, Indian Roller, Greater Racket-tailed & Ashy Drongos, Blue Rock-Thrushes, Ashy Minivets, Hainan Blue-Flycatcher, Taiga Flycatcher, Green-billed Malkoha, Black-naped Monarch, Large Cuckooshrike, Forest Wagtail, Common Hill Myna, Coppersmith Barbet, and one of Asia’s most beautiful raptors, the Black Baza. Long-tailed Macaques are also common in the complex. We will overnight again in Siem Riep.

Oriental Pied-Hornbills are readily found on the tour
Oriental Pied-Hornbills are readily found on the tour (Iain Campbell)

Day 3: Ang Trapeang Thmor. Today we will spend a full day exploring this reserve, an hour’s drive from Siem Riep along a very good road. It harbors over 300 of the endangered sharpei race of Sarus Crane, which we should find with the help of a local guide. We will also be searching for the rare Milky Stork amongst the more common Painted Storks, the scarce Oriental Plover, and should encounter large concentrations of Lesser Whistling-Ducks, and other waterbirds including Pheasant-tailed and Bronze-winged Jacanas, Cotton Pygmy-geese, Garganey, Yellow Bittern, White-browed Crake, Watercock, Black-headed Ibis, Spot-billed Pelican and possibly even Black-necked Stork. In the dry, open forests bordering this lush reservoir we may find one of Asia’s rarest mammals, the gorgeous Eld’s Deer. Also in this habitat we may see Pied Harrier, the colourful Black-headed Woodpecker, Spotted Owlet, Rufous Treepies, Australasian & Indochinese Bushlarks, Purple Sunbird & Burmese Shrike. Another night will be spent in Siem Riep.

Day 4: Prek Toal. Today we will have a visit to Tonle Sap Lake, the largest fresh water lake in Southeast Asia. The Prek Toal core area of the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve is unmatched for the number and population of endangered water birds. We will have a very early start, driving to the port on the huge lake where we will board a boat to take us across, where we will transfer to smaller boats to enter the narrow watercourses at sunrise. We will make our way to the colonies of Lesser Adjutants, Painted Storks, and Spot-billed Pelicans hoping for the rarer Greater Adjutant and Milky Storks. In addition, we should also find Black-headed Ibis, Oriental Darter, the majestic Gray-headed Fish-Eagle, Cinnamon & Yellow Bitterns, Eastern Marsh-Harrier and Black-capped Kingfishers. After a full morning here we will enjoy a packed lunch and take the boat back across, observing the fascinating floating villages on the way. In the afternoon we may visit an area of scrub and ponds near the port which has a good range of species, including Ruddy-breasted Crake, Green & Blue-tailed Bee-eaters, Burmese Shrike, the skulking Lanceolated Warbler, Chestnut-capped Babbler, Striated Grassbird, Oriental Pipit, Baya & Streaked Weavers. A final night will be spent in Siem Riep.

Tmatboey is the only reliable place on Earth for Giant Ibis
Tmatboey is the only reliable place on Earth for Giant Ibis (Martin Hale)

Day 5: Florican Grasslands to Tmatboey. Leaving Siem Riep we head to the floodplain grasslands of Tonle Sap to search for the critically endangered Bengal Florican. Populations of these birds have halved in the past few years and our visit will be supporting conservation efforts by using local people to help us locate these incredibly rare birds. We will scan the grasslands and with luck, may even see their unique flight display. Other birds here may include Small Buttonquail, Bluethroat, Oriental Skylark, Australasian Bushlark, Richard’s & Oriental Pipits, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, and the scarce Manchurian Reed-Warbler. After this we will continue to the remote Khmer village of Tmatboey situated in the centre of the Northern Plains of Cambodia. On the way we will look for pint-sized Collared Falconet and White-rumped Falcon. Other possibilities may include Rufous-winged Buzzard, Changeable Hawk-Eagle, Large Hawk-Cuckoo, Crested Treeswift, and the neglectus race of Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch. After arriving at the rustic lodge, we will take an afternoon excursion to a site for Pale-capped Pigeon. We may also see Chinese Francolin, Brown Fish-Owl, Green Imperial-Pigeon, Large & Common Woodshrikes, Vinous-breasted Starling, and the enormous Great Slaty Woodpecker. Before dusk we will position ourselves to view the White-shouldered Ibis coming in to their roost site. After dinner we may look for Collared & Oriental Scops-Owls closeby. We’ll overnight in the simple Tmatboey Eco-lodge.

Day 6: Tmatboey. Our main target today will be the critically endangered Giant Ibis and we will try for them pre-dawn at their roosting trees and after look for them foraging at small pools in the forest known as trapengs. Other species that can be found at these include Woolly-necked & Black-necked Storks, Lesser Adjutant and White-shouldered Ibises. In the surrounding trees possibilities include Orange-breasted & Yellow-footed Pigeons, Blossom-headed Parakeet and Violet Cuckoo. Assuming we have the two key ibises under our belt, the rest of the day will be spent sampling the fantastic array of dry forest birds, including Asian Drongo-Cuckoo, Brown-rumped Minivets, Large & Indochinese Cuckooshrikes, Velvet fronted Nuthatch, Brown Prinia, Blue-bearded & Chestnut headed Bee-eaters. The rangers here are particularly good at finding day roosts of owls, and often have Brown Fish-Owl, Brown & Spotted Wood-Owls staked out. Another night will be spent in Tmatboey.

Various roost sites will be checked for sleeping owls, like this Brown Wood-Owl
Various roost sites will be checked for sleeping owls, like this Brown Wood-Owl (Steve Blain)

Day 7: Tmatboey to Okoki. This morning we will visit a different trail looking for the attractive Rufous-bellied Woodpecker. We will also try to clean up or obtain better views of any birds we are still missing from the area. After our final birding at Tmatboey, we will drive to the village of Dongphlet in the Chhep Protected Forest and from there to the campsite at Okoki, a site for the rare White-winged Duck and Coral-billed Ground Cuckoo. In this pristine part of Cambodia we have the possibility of seeing mammals too, and Gaur, Asian elephants, Pileated Gibbon, Banteng, Sambar, Wild Pig, Red Muntjac, Fishing Cat and Golden Jackal are all present in the area. We’ll overnight in safari-style tents, in Okoki. A cook will travel with the group and beer can be arranged.

Day 8: Okoki. This morning, we will make our way predawn to hides constructed next to the pools favored by White-winged Duck. During the day, we will search for forest birds including Green Peafowl, White-rumped Falcon, Bar-bellied Pitta, Banded Broadbill and Banded Kingfisher. On our night walks we could encounter Oriental Bay Owl and Blyth’s Frogmouth. Another night will be spent under canvas in comfort, at Okoki.

Day 9: Okoki to Veal Krous. After a final morning of birding at Okoki, we will transfer to a vulture restaurant at Veal Krous. Again we will stay in tented accommodation and be catered for by our own cook. We will take an afternoon walk on which we may see Vinous-breasted & Chestnut-tailed Starlings, Yellow-footed Pigeon, Common Flameback, Brown Prinia and perhaps even Giant Ibis. Mammals are also a possibility in this area and we could see Red Muntjak, Golden Jackal and the endangered Indochinese Silvered Langur. Vultures may start gathering expectantly for tomorrow’s feast. A night walk may produce Indian, Savanna or Large-tailed Nightjars, Oriental Scops-Owl and Brown Wood-Owl. Nocturnal mammals are also possible including Indian Giant Flying Squirrel. We’ll overnight at Veal Krous.

Bar-bellied Pitta is one of the standout birds at Okoki
Bar-bellied Pitta is one of the standout birds at Okoki (Ken Behrens)

Day 10: Veal Krous to Kratie. This morning we visit a specially set up blind close to our camp where a recently slaughtered cow will be put out to feed Red-headed, White-rumped and Slender-billed Vultures. Asian vultures have been almost wiped out by the use of the veterinary drug Diclofenac, which has caused dramatic 95% declines amongst many species in just a short time. However, this drug is not used here and the supplementary feeding is important for the conservation of these critically endangered species. In the late morning we leave from Veal Krous to Kratie, arriving late afternoon. Near Kratie, we will stop at a small marsh to look at many Asian Golden and Streaked Weavers. After several nights under canvas we will enjoy some creature comforts like air-conditioning in a comfortable Kratie hotel.

Day 11: Kratie to Seima. This morning we will explore the Mekong River by boat searching the small vegetated islands for the recently discovered Mekong Wagtail. We also hope to find Irrawaddy Dolphins that frequent this part of the river. Other birds possible include Grey-throated Sand Martin, Small Pratincole and maybe even Great Thick-knee. After breakfast we will drive to Seima for a three-night stay.

Days 12-13: Seima. We will have two full days to explore the Seima forest and search for numerous targets, foremost of which is the Orange-necked Partridge. Other birds we will look for include Green Peafowl, the local Germain’s Peacock Pheasant, Scaly-breasted Partridge & Red-vented Barbet. Woodpeckers are particularly numerous here and we hope to see Pale-capped, Great Slaty, White-bellied, Laced, Heart-spotted and Black-and-buff Woodpeckers. Seima is home to several interesting primates, including the beautiful Black-shanked Douc, Yellow-cheeked Crested Gibbon, Northern Pig-tailed and Long-tailed Macaque. On a night drive we have a chance to see Giant Flying Squirrel, Common-palm Civet, Small-toothed Civet, Pygmy Loris and Lesser Mouse-Deer and possibly Spot-bellied Eagle Owl too. We’ll overnight at a local hotel.

One of the tougher birds to find is the Coral-billed Ground-Cuckoo
One of the tougher birds to find is the Coral-billed Ground-Cuckoo (Benji Schwartz)

Day 14: Seima to Phnom Penh. After a final morning’s birding at Seima we will make our way back to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, stopping on the way to see the newly discovered Cambodian Tailorbird, which was only described as recently as 2013. We will finish the tour at the airport in Phnom Penh where we will connect with our international flights home.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

CLIMATE: Hot and sometimes humid in the lowlands where the entire tour is spent. Although, generally a dry time of year, short bursts of rain could still occur.

DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate. Although the walking on the tour does not involve any steep mountainous areas, there are some longer walks in flattish areas. Cambodia is also underdeveloped relative to some of its Southeast Asian neighbours meaning we need to drive on a number of poor, unpaved roads.

ACCOMMODATION: Simple to good. The accommodations used on this vary greatly. In the big cities modern good standard hotels are available, although in many remote areas visited the hotels are simpler, with no choice of higher standard options there. Most of them though have private facilities and hot water. In Tmatboey we will be staying in the simple Tmatboey Eco-lodge, where only shared bathroom facilities and cold water are available. For several nights there is no other choice but to camp, where we are supplied with our own cook, and tents are spacious and are of a good standard, thanks to a field crew which sets them up for us, making this far more comfortable than perhaps it sounds.