Myanmar: Burmese Specialties - Birding Tour
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Myanmar is a large and diverse country in southeast Asia, which has an air of mystery after being closed to outsiders and torn by civil war for many decades. But peace has finally come to Myanmar, and it is most definitely open to tourists now, making a range of endemics, near-endemics, and other specialty birds available to the traveling birder. Several species are endemic to the semi-desert thornscrub of Myanmar’s central valley, namely the White-throated Babbler, Burmese Bushlark, and Hooded Treepie, plus the beautiful Jerdon’s Minivet, which is split by many authorities. The sand banks of the broad and meandering Irrawaddy River hold a different set of specialty birds. Many of these are also found in the Indian subcontinent, but are scarce or lacking from the rest of the world. These include River Lapwing, White-tailed Stonechat, Sand Lark, Striated Babbler, and a significant wintering population of the increasingly scarce Yellow-breasted Bunting. Mount Victoria is often considered the “crown jewel” of Burmese birding, and rightly so. It is part of the Chin Hills, the southernmost extension of the Himalayas, and is the only place on Earth to see the beautiful White-browed Nuthatch, along with a rich set of other montane species like “Mount Victoria” Chinese Babax (a likely split), Brown-capped, Striped, and Assam Laughingthrushes, Black-bibbed Tit, “Burmese” Black-browed Tit (another likely split), Rusty-capped Fulvetta, Spot-breasted Scimitar-Babbler, and many others. We finish up this short but diverse trip in the eastern mountains of Myanmar. The forest here is very different from that in the Chin Hills, resembling that of northwestern Thailand. It is the best place on Earth to see the scarce near-endemic Burmese Bushtit. The expansive Lake Inle is a stronghold of the rare Jerdon’s Bushchat and Collared Myna, along with a bounty of other wetland birds. Myanmar is a land of great cultural treasures, and conveniently, one of its greatest ones, the ancient city of Bagan, also happens to be one of its preeminent birding sites.
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Length: 13 Days
Starting City: Yangon
Ending City: Yangon
Physical Difficulty: Easy/Moderate
Focus: Birding, culture
Max group size: 9 + 1 leader +1 local guide
Day 1: Arrival in Yangon
After arriving at the slick modern airport of Yangon, we will be transferred to our commodious city hotel for the night. Those who have arrived by mid-afternoon will have the option of visiting the massive, gilded Shwedagon Pagoda, a stunning sight, and still a vital center of Burmese Bhuddism. The thousands of House Crows that roost in Yangon’s parks will provide a welcome to Burmese birding!
Day 2-3: Yangon to Bagan
We kick off the tour with a short domestic flight to Bagan, along the banks of the mighty Irewaddy River in the vast central valley, the traditional seat of Burmese culture. The landscape here is quite unlike the lush forests and fields that characterize much of southeast Asia. Rather, it is a stark thorny savannah that is reminiscent of much of the Indian subcontinent, or even of Africa. We will walk among the countless (there are some 3000!) red brick pagodas that adorn this area, searching for its specialty birds. The Burmese Bushlark and White-throated Babbler are usually easy, whereas the Jerdon’s Minivet and Hooded Treepie can be remarkably elusive. Other targets in this dry zone will include Rain Quail, Laggar, Spotted Owlet, wintering Eurasian Wryneck, Eurasian Collared-Dove (a distinctive local race and likely split), Thick-billed Warbler, Purple Sunbird, Burmese Shrike, Brown Prinia, Vinous-breasted Starling (of another distinctive local race) and Plain-backed Sparrow. If time allows, we’ll do the classically “touristy” thing and watch the sun set while perched on the side of a carefully chosen pagoda, making for spectacular photos and an unforgettable spectacle. On one afternoon, we’ll take a short boat trip along the Irrawaddy to allow us to explore some grassy islands for species like River Lapwing, Yellow-eyed and Striated Babblers, White-tailed Stonechat, and Yellow-breasted Bunting.
Day 4: Bagan to Mount Victoria
This is a long travel day, in which we first cross the Irrawaddy River, then strike west towards the mountains, watching the landscape gradually grow moister, then finally winding our way up to the wonderfully cool pine and broadleaf forest at around 6000ft (1800m). Along the way are a couple of stakeouts for the very scarce White-rumped Falcon. There are also additional chances for the elusive Hooded Treepie if we missed it in Bagan.
Days 5-7: Mount Victoria
There is a long list of specialties on this ornithologically storied mountain, though due to rampant hunting, many of them can be quite hard to find. Unfortunately, larger birds like hornbills, pigeons, and pheasants have been nearly wiped out. Nonetheless, this mountain still has the overall “birdiness” that is typical of the Himalayas, and it is a joy to explore at different elevations and to start racking up our targets. Of course the endemic White-browed Nuthatch is at the top of most people’s want lists. But other fine specialties include Striped, Assam, and Brown-capped Laughingthrushes, “Mount Victoria” Chinese Babax, Rusty-capped Fulvetta, Streak-throated Barwing, Gray-sided Thrush, Black-throated and Spot-breasted Parrotbills, Collared Finchbill, Chin Hills Wren-Babbler, Spot-breasted Scimitar-Babbler, and Yellow-bellied Flowerpecker. There is also a long list of more widespread Himalayan birds that are likely to be new for those who haven’t birded in the eastern part of that range. These include the likes of Crimson-fronted and Darjeeling Woodpeckers, Great and Golden-throated Barbets, Chestnut-vented Nuthatch, Spotted Elachura (which now forms its own family), Himalayan Cutia, Green-tailed, Mrs. Gould’s, and Fire-tailed Sunbirds, Gray Sibia, White-browed Fulvetta, Bar-throated, Blue-winged, and Red-tailed Minlas, Black-headed, White-browed, Green, and Black-eared Shrike-Babblers, Yellow-billed Blue Magpie, and a baffling array of Phylloscopus warblers. We’ll watch for soaring raptors like Crested Goshawk, Black and Rufous-bellied Eagles, and Himalayan Buzzard. The thick understory holds skulkers like Scaly-breasted Wren-Babbler, Pygmy Cupwing, and Chestnut-headed Tesia. At night we will venture out and search for Hodgson’s Frogmouth, though a large dose of luck is needed to get good views of this elusive beast. For our four nights on the mountain, we’ll be based in a comfortable though rustic tourist lodge at the edge of the forest.
Day 8: Mount Victoria to Bagan
Descending from the mountain, we’ll retrace our steps back to hot and dry Bagan. We’ll leave early to take advantage of our limited time in the dipterocarp and mixed deciduous forest that is found along the way. This is the best place in southeast Asia for parakeets, with five species represented, including Gray-headed, Blossom-headed, and Alexandrine. Birding in this habitat is especially hit-and-miss, but some other tantalizing possibilities include Great Slaty Woodpecker, Himalayan and Greater Flamebacks, Greater Yellownape, Collared Falconet, Pin-tailed Green Pigeon, Red-headed Trogon, Large Woodshrike, Large Cuckooshrike, Brown-cheeked Fulvetta, and Blue-throated Flycatcher. As we approach the Irrawaddy, and the landscapes becomes increasingly drier, we’ll watch for the odd White-eyed Buzzard, and walk through some badlands in search of the endemic local race of Long-billed Pipit.
Day 9: Bagan to Heho to Kalaw
Another short domestic flight carries us into the eastern mountains of Myanmar, which have a very different feeling and avifauna from the Chin Hills. Here we are in the Shan State, which has distinct languages, cultures, and cuisine. One of the fascinating aspects of this tour is that visiting the central valley, the Chin Hills, and the Shan State, is almost like visiting three different countries, though there is a distinctly Burmese thread running through all three places. We’ll spend the night in the charming hill station town of Kalaw, which has a relaxed atmosphere and wonderful climate. In the afternoon, we’ll begin our explorations of the rich broadleaved forest west of town.
Day 10: Kalaw
Our prime target on this day will be the highly localized, though not quite endemic Burmese Yuhina. This handsome puffy-crested bird seems to be present in very low densities, but we will comb prime habitat and hope to run into a little flock of them. While we search for the yuhina, we’re sure to enjoy sightings of many other birds, such as Bay Woodpecker, Black-backed Sibia, Yunnan Fulvetta, Yellow-cheeked Tit, Silver-eared Mesia, Orange-bellied Leafbird, Black-throated Sunbird, and Silver-eared Laughingthrush. The small remnant wetlands at the edge of the forest sometimes produce Black-tailed Crake. We’ll also explore some more scrubby and open habitat, in search of Spot-throated Babbler, Spectacled Barwing, Spot-breasted Parrotbill, and Black-headed Greenfinch.
Day 11: Kalaw to Lake Inle
A short drive back through Heho brings us to Lake Inle, a huge body of water at moderate elevations in an inter-montane valley. Here we’ll explore the endless expanses of marsh and open water for a bounty of new trip birds. This is the best place on Earth for Jerdon’s Bushchat, which has the friendly habit of sitting out in the open for all to see! The other major target at Inle is the increasingly rare Collared Myna. We’ll also look for reed-bed skulkers like Cinnamon Bittern, Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, Baikal Bush-Warbler, and Chinese Grassbird. There are lots of widespread Asian waterbirds like Little Cormorant, White-throated and Common Kingfishers, Asian Openbill, and Purple Heron. Harriers including Pied and Eastern Marsh, may come coursing over the roadbeds anytime. Open water holds Eurasian Coot, Indian Spot-billed Duck, and Ferruginous Pochard, while Brown-headed and Black-headed Gulls follow tourist boats looking for handouts! Asides from its interest as a birding spot, Inle is simply a fascinating place, with its famous floating gardens, and its many aquatic villages built on stilts out on the lake itself. It’s also known for its “leg rowers” who stand in their boats and use one leg to row an oar, an astounding and rather picturesque operation!
Day 12: Inle Lake to Heho to Yangon
A short drive will take us back to the Heho airport, where we’ll board our flight back to Yangon. At our comfortable hotel, we’ll enjoy a final dinner of delicious Burmese food.
Day 13: Departure from Yangon
Before flying out, we will do a final morning of birding in Hlawga Park, on the north side of Yangon. Taxonomic fanatics will be keen to see the localized “Davidson’s” subspecies of Stripe-throated Bulbul, but there is plenty in Hlawga to keep any birder occupied. We’ll look for Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, White-crested Laughingthrush, and a variety of other lowland forest birds that will likely to be new for the trip. The rare Pale-capped Pigeon is sometimes even seen in Hlawga.
PACE: Moderate. For all birding we will need to be up early, around 5:30 or 6 am, and stay out late, until around 6 pm, in order to take advantage of the best birding hours. Where possible we will use the middle of the day to relax, or travel between localities, but some days will be full days in the field. There will be a few optional outings after dark to search for nocturnal birds; these seldom last for more than an hour. There are two all-day drives, on the way to and from Mt. Victoria (days 4 & 8). We will take packed breakfasts on several mornings, and also a couple of picnic lunches.
PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate. Nearly all of our birding will be on roads or wide tracks, without drastic elevation change. On some days, we’ll do as much as 4-5 miles (6.5-8km) of easy walking. The highest altitude we may reach is about 10,000 ft (3000m) on the top of Mount Victoria, though most of our time on the mountain will be spent much lower, and all the other sites on the tour are at low or moderate elevations.
CLIMATE: Yangon will be hot (up to 95°F, 35°C) and humid. Bagan can have similar temperatures, though it’s much drier. The weather on Mount Victoria, and at Kalaw and Lake Inle will generally be comfortable (50-70°F, 10-21°C). Early mornings and nights on Mount Victoria can be very cold (below 32°F, 0°C) especially on the mornings where we bird at higher elevations. Heavy rainfall is unlikely, and we may not see any rain at all.
ACCOMMODATION: Good to excellent; all have private, en-suite bathrooms, and full-time hot water. Electricity is available everywhere, though only in the evenings and mornings on Mount Victoria. Internet is widespread, but not available on Mount Victoria. At higher altitudes, the interior of the rooms is chilly, but warm blankets are provided.
PHOTOGRAPHY: The birds in Myanmar are wary of humans, making photography a challenge. There are very good opportunities for cultural photography, especially at Bagan, and for landscape photography on Mount Victoria.
WHEN TO GO: Late winter and early spring (January to March), which is the dry season in Myanmar. The weather isn’t too hot, and there are lots of wintering birds visiting from farther north in Eurasia. Myanmar also becomes very smoky from late March onwards, as much of the country is burned at the end of the dry season.
TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Tourist visas are currently required for citizens of most countries, but these are easy to get online via Myanmar’s e-visa system, at a current cost of $50. Travel requirements are subject to change; it’s a good idea to double check six weeks before you travel.
WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers, local guides, and lodge/restaurant staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 12; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to lunch on day 13; reasonable non-alcoholic drinks with meals; safe drinking water between meals; Tropical Birding full-time bird tour leader with scope and audio playback gear from the evening of day 1 to mid-day of day 13; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person specifically on arrival day and departure day respectively (transfers may be shared with other participants of the same tour if they arrive at the same time); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from the evening of day 1 to mid-day of day 13 in a suitable vehicle; entrance fees to sites mentioned in the itinerary; domestic flights; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).
WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips for luggage porters at hotels (if you require their services); international flights; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; airport-hotel transfers on days that fall outside the prescribed arrival and departure days; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; excess baggage fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.