Birding in Burma

This year Thanksgiving coincided with a Burmese national holiday called Tazaungdaing.  This meant an extra day of school holiday than normal.  We contemplated going to the beach and in retrospect that would probably have been a good choice considering Lindsey’s Dengue Fever but instead decided we would go on a short birding trip to see a bit of the country and for me to see a few birds.  We were picked up at our house on the Wednesday morning at 6:00 am by a guide and a driver in a saloon type car which is unusual for a birding vehicle but was actually quite comfortable and modern.  We then drove out to a town called Wakema, which is South West of Yangon in the Irrawaddy delta area.

The Tazaungdaing festival lasts two days and is a national holiday in Myanmar.   Part of the festival includes collecting money for monks.  There is a kind of Christmas tree shaped and sized thing that is adorned with money (or possibly symbols of money) seemingly laminated in plastic.  This is then placed on the back of a pick up truck and is paraded around often followed by another pick-up laden with a tower of huge speakers barely held together with rope blasting out Burmese dance music.  Sometimes the spectacle includes a parade of people also on foot.   We also saw people dressed up in a 2 person cow or possibly buffalo costume dancing around.  Later we also the same but this time an elephant costume.  This made for a lot of extra traffic and traffic jams on our way out of Yangon and at one point we were even stopped altogether by a buffalo costume who danced in our way until we gave an offering.

I think I’ve mentioned before that the driving in Myanmar is its least enticing feature.  The reason for this is that until about 2012 there were strict limitations on car imports so relatively few people knew how to drive.  Now this has opened up but even the people who can drive don’t have a lot of experience.  Imagine a country populated by 18 year old drivers who are largely male and going through that ‘need for speed’ stage of maturity.  We were largely driving on roads just wide enough for two vehicles so our driver was constantly performing hair raising overtaking manoeuvres.  These were made even more so by the other cruel quirk of Myanmar driving which is that the government, probably in a bid to distance themselves from British colonialism, decided to change the side of the road that everyone drives on.  Unfortunately, this has not meant an immediate switch of all the cars from right hand drive to left hand drive.  Our vehicle was a right hand drive vehicle but we’re also driving on the right hand side.  This means that if you want to overtake you can’t actually see around the car in front to tell whether there is any oncoming traffic.  We figured out quite quickly that our guide (sitting in the passenger seat) was giving an ongoing commentary to the driver on the state of the oncoming traffic as we drove along.  I remember my first experience of Asian driving which was when I first went to Sri Lanka.  It was so scary that you could barely look out of the front window and had to constantly look out of the side windows to maintain sanity.  On that trip I saw not one accident that I can remember.  On this trip we saw several accidents and some looked quite bad.

We stopped for breakfast along the way and after about 4 hours we arrived at our first birding spot.  I hadn’t really appreciated this but the reason why we were in this area was really to see two rare species.  One of them is an impressive bird which fits Lindsey’s category of birds she actually likes to see as it has both of her top two features; size and colour.  The Sarus Crane is a rare crane and its conservation status is considered ‘Vulnerable’.  There are very few birds on my list that have this status so I am always pleased to see one.   We did see one at this time but it was quite far in the distance so we didn’t get a great look.  The other bird is on the opposite end of Lindsey’s scale and something birders refer to as an LBJ (little brown job).  Jerdon’s Babbler is just such a bird with little to recommend it other than its rarity.  We heard 2 or 3 of them but didn’t see one at this time.

We then drove on to our hotel which we stayed at for just one night.  It was apparently only three months old but an example of the scarcity of experience in many areas in this country.  Firstly, the build quality was terrible with gaping holes surrounding the bathroom fixtures as an example.  The shower hose didn’t reach your head which was ironic considering that the bath was about three feet off the ground so we had to help each other in and out of it to not risk a fall.  Then there was the staff and service level which was well meaning but clearly unused to international guests.  They insisted on seeing not only our passports but also the visas in our passports.  As we were travelling in country and by car we didn’t think to bring our passports so we had the comical task of getting our driver to translate our instructions to our cleaner (who was at our house looking after Nell) on where our passports could be found so that she could take a picture and send it to us.  The Burmese lobe strip lighting and the hotel was no exception.  However, at night they left the corridor windows open which acted as invitation to all manner of insects.  In the morning it was practically like walking on a carpet of dead insects.  There may well have been a reason for this though as construction work was clearly still going on.  In general it was fine with a great view from the top floor restaurant where swallows flitted by at eye level.  The hotel was literally surrounded by birds which was great for me.

The next day we went on a boat ride and this time did catch a glimpse of the elusive Jerdon’s Babbler as well as seeing 4 more Sarus Cranes but this time in flight.  The story of our lives seems to be that we are always in the wrong season to see something and this is the case with the cranes.  The rainy season is the best time to see them apparently so I’m thinking about another trip then – solo!

After the morning session we got back in the car and headed back the way we came firstly into Yangon and then north of Yangon about 2 hours to a place called Moeyungi Wetland Wildlife Sanctuary.  This place was much more set up for tourists and as we arrived on a national holiday there were lots of locals there picnicking.  After we checked in we were lead along raised wooden walkways to our ‘room’ which was a sort of hut shaped the like the front end of a boat.  It was very small inside with a tiny deck that only could really fir one person.  Lindsey gave me the ‘eyeballs’ so I duly went back and asked them if we could be moved to these nice cabins that we had seen on the way.  They immediately acquiesced without a hint of protest.  We subsequently found out that these were more expensive but we didn’t have to pay any extra so that was a small bonus.

In the late afternoon we simply sat on our deck drinking beer and watching the sun go down.  Our place looked out over a stretch of water enclosed by walkways with convenient electricity wires strung out over the water.  From there we could watch the many swallows and drongos swooping around looking for insects and even a resident kingfisher actually fishing.  As the sun went down we started to see cattle egrets flying in to a series of about three trees which must have been a regular roost for them.  They kept on coming and coming and we estimated there may have been 3 thousand in total – quite a spectacle.

Moeyungyi is right on a lake so the activity there is initially all by boat. In the afternoon we took the boat across the lake to a spot among some paddy fields where we got out to walk around and look for birds.  There was a collection of shacks there and outside one was a literal pile of piglets all asleep – very cute

The next morning we took the boat out again but this time to a different location.  On our walk there we saw about 15 Painted Storks albeit at a distance and a variety of other birds too.  The afternoon was spent chilling out and reading and then another boat ride in the later afternoon/ early evening.  This was probably the best for photographs as there were loads of great egrets and purple herons taking off as we approached as well as the impressively coloured purple swamp hen (or grey-headed swamp hen if you’re being picky).  We also saw an open-billed stork and a pied harrier which was a first for me and is the photo at the top of this post.

In total I added 23 new birds to my life list which is now perilously close to the original target I set myself when I started listing my birds about 12 years ago. My target was 1,000 birds which is about 10% of the total number of species in the world.  I’m now on 978!


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