The Bird Wave
I'm not saying I'm better than you. Far be it from me to grip you off, as the Australians say, but I've just seen four Gray Crowned Crocias. You're impressed, I know, although you may never even have heard of a Gray Crowned Crocias before. I had, but I'll be the first to admit I haven't the faintest idea how it's pronounced. Is it CROW-SEE-UHZ? That seems the most probable, but CROWshus sounds reasonable and even CROAK-EE-US is plausible. Birdwatching is full of obscure family names like this, ones which no birders actually know for certain how to pronounce. That's right, we're talking about a bird, here. But as my brother might once have said: what does it matter, for a name is just a social construct. The point is, I saw it.
I cannot claim to be the Christopher Columbus of Crociases (Crociae?). The groundwork had been done for me. After much consulting of the internets, I located the world's most famous, number-one top spot for viewing these cuddly, charming, and oh-so-very endemic feathered amigos, a place known as the Ta Nung Valley, just twenty-minutes motorcycle ride from my hotel in Dalat, in the province or state or department or whatever they call them of South Annam, Vietnam. The only state, province or department in the world in which Gray Crowned Crociaii are to be found, skulking about quietly and discreetly in the dense foliage.
The Ta Nung Valley is a rather grandiose name for a heavily wooded creek-bed, one which has, however, miraculously escaped the worst of the mad third-world woodchopper's chainsaw, at least so far.* The development of an "eco-resort" seems to be proceeding there. Sadly, in the Vietnamese context, this means cutting lots of things down and creating a sylvan but sterile park-like environment, usually complete with cement giraffes and over-manicured topiary. For now, however, the far wall of the Ta Nung Valley is still thickly forested with a lovely diversity of massive trees. There is enough jungle left to make finding the Crocias no easy matter.**
As I will demonstrate in a future post, Vietnam is no place to be a bird. In the public perception here, if they have any purpose at all, our feathered friends of all shapes and dimensions are for keeping at home in cages, for eating, and for small boys to target with slingshots. I had forgotten, in the ten years since my last serious birding foray in Asia, in the nearby Philippines, just how skittish and nervous birds in the region tend to be. Even the smallest, most curious and confiding species keep at least triple the usual distance between themselves and any human intruder. Numbers are generally low, and the birds keep well hidden.
The Ta Nung Valley is in this regard a pre-industrial relic. Some trip reports I consulted suggested that a slow day there could be dismal and unrewarding, an exhausting tramp through a silent, birdless forest, especially if one missed the crucial morning chorus between 6 and 8AM. But on my first visit, a sort of scouting mission, I arrived at the very unbirdy hour of two in the afternoon, and found the place humming and chirping with activity. Every birder's dream is the unexplained phenomenon known to birders from Britain and its former colonies as a "bird wave," and to the less romantic Americans as a "mixed flock." One theory is that because many eyes and inclinations make it much easier to spot predators, birds of multiple species, with different diets, habits and sizes will often band together in disorganized parties, moving through the forest together in a gang, so that a patch of jungle that one moment was silent and still will minutes later be alive, a veritable hive of activity. Although there are notable species that never participate in such waves, this phenomenon is consistent across the globe, from the New Jersey woodlands of spring migration to the Andean slopes, the African forests (what's left of them), and the Asian jungles.
The avid birder wandering the forest waits and hopes to stumble into a bird wave the way a man crawling the Sahara seeks an oasis. Nonetheless, coming upon a bird wave is an anxiety ridden episode. Consider, as we discuss waves, surfing. The surfer waits patiently, paddling, watching the horizon, letting innumerable opportunities slide beneath her surfboard, before identifying the wave worthy of being ridden, committing, and then trying to make the most of it with grace and finesse. Will all that time be wasted, with a flubbed ride, or the realization that just behind lurked a bigger, better wave? So too, the birder, when the long-awaited wave arrives, must seize the moment, efficiently, remaining calm under pressure. Suddenly, the surrounding trees will be thick with activity. Dozens of flitting shadows and chirps divide the attention of the binoculars. It is crucial, in these situations, to know what one is about. It is easy to waste your time on commonplace species and find the wave has moved, dispersed to who knows where, before you have managed even a handful of identifications. One tears one's hair in frustration. Some waves are small, and hold only the more populous species. Others are gargantuan, multi-level affairs, involving ground-loving species, canopy dwellers and a frenzy of mid-story activity that remains with you until you are sated.
The ideal in a wave is to be able to identify the more common species from the quickest glimpse of a feather, in order to move on, to look for something rarer. Not to be confused by the mass of activity. To recognize a shape, a flit, a motion, as something new and unusual. Here, species like Mountain Fulvetta and Ashy Bulbul may be represented in a bird wave by dozens of individuals. White Throated Fantail and Gray Headed Canary Flycatcher attend virtually every wave. One must not be distracted by their ubiquity, or the shy and retiring prizes will slip away while you are sorting through the hoi-polloi. The Crocias is such a prize, a sluggish and gentle forager that moves calmly and imperceptibly through the foliage of the upper middle story. I did not see one.
But the goal for the afternoon was met, and I saw many exciting species new to me. More importantly, I left feeling prepared for the following morning. I knew the Ashy Bulbul from the quickest flash of its olive-yellow wing panel. The Mountain Fulvetta would never distract me again; virtually any smallish gray and brown shape within ten feet of the ground, I knew, would prove to be one. I would look past the background noise.
At 5:30 in the morning, the sky still black, I slipped on my helmet and threw a leg over my rented motorbike, revved the engine and turned on the headlamp.*** Twenty minutes later, when I arrived at Ta Nung, the sky was rapidly going blue-gray. I found the gate at the top of the trail, open the day before, locked. I parked the bike, jumped three low strands of barbed wire, and hiked fearlessly past the frenzied barking of the guardian's dogs. He emerged, did not look happy to see me, but said nothing. I gave him a smile and a wave. Less than a hundred meters below his house, the day began in earnest with a massive single-species flock of at least forty White Cheeked Laughingthrushes, a bird I had not seen the day before. A very good omen. From there, it went on, one blaze of glory after another, one vast tidal wave of frenzied birding until 11:30 in the morning when the sun was blisteringly high in the sky and the activity finally lagged. Today I'm exhausted. I'm taking the day off, internetting and eating noodle soup. I don't want to grip you off, but yesterday was the tsunami of bird waves.
Oh, and the Crocias? You must be wondering. A major accomplishment, to be certain, but still only one episode in a glorious ornithological orgy.**** For a moment, despite the waves upon waves, I thought they would elude me. In an early monster wave I saw a largish white belly with black streaks, leading a cuckoo-like tail, peering and poking its way through an impossibly dense tangle overhead. I knew immediately that this was my bird, but the wave was on the move, and before I could see anything more it was gone, an unsatisfactory sighting in every way. But not ten minutes further along the trail, the one that goes downstream, below the dam, I found another, a bit lower in the trees, and saw it well as it moved through the leaves overhead. Well enough that I moved on to look at other things. Then looking once again overhead, I saw it again, then three together, sitting tightly packed on a branch, as if for warmth. Some people would call this cute. I call it triumph.
*The use of the term "third-world" seems to be steadily sliding out of vogue. "Developing world" is now to be preferred. While some will imagine this semantic shift has everything to do with political correctness, I suggest they are wrong. The reality is that as the United States slides inexorably downward on the lists that used to define third-worldness--quality of education, healthcare, nutrition, income disparity, etc.--it has become preferable to de-emphasize the competitive aspect implied by the designations of "first" and "second" and "third" worlds. The US will never be "undeveloped," and therefore will never lose ground to "developing."
**As some very recent trip reports on this site have noted, the ecotourism project at Ta Nung is quickly altering the landscape, eliminating landmark trees and making it difficult to find trails. I used a GPS, so any birders needing GPS data leave a comment and I'll get back to you with more details.
***100,000 VN Dong, or $5, to rent one for the entire day. Are you kidding? How does anyone make any money out of that?
****For those counting, at some point yesterday I broke 3,000.