Home to flooded forests, vast grasslands and undulating rivers, Cambodia is a prime habitat for birds, both big and small. Ellie Dyer, Marissa Carruthers and Caroline Major meet some of the nation’s “birders” and discover how conservations are working to preserve the Kingdom’s winged residents, including several highly endangered species. Photography by Charles Fox and contributors.
Camouflaged in khaki shirts with matching floppy hats and army fatigues, Cambodia’s bird watchers are in an unusual situation. More often observed hiding behind long lenses waiting for colourful birdlife to pop into view, this time AsiaLIFE has trained the camera on them.
Tools of the ”birding” world stand around the sparse Phnom Penh studio where the photography shoot is taking place. In one corner stands a brown and green pop-up tent or “hide”, inside which members of the Birds of Cambodia Education and Conservation (BCEC) group can stake out sites. Notebooks, binoculars, bird books and a medley of impressive precision lenses and comfy camera accessories, all used in regular bird-seeking expeditions to the countryside, lie nearby.
“The forest birds are so shy, so we have to have some techniques to understand their behaviour,” says birder Suy Senglim, settling down on a sofa to discuss his love for all things feathered.
As one of Cambodia’s most avid birdwatchers and bird photographers, he patiently explains the basics of birding, at one point demonstrating a darting head movement used to observe woodland environments. “When we hear the sound we are able to recognise the species, so we play a tape [of the song] to call it out – but it’s not 100 percent successful,” he adds.
Indeed, spotting birds can be a fine art. Different sound recordings can be played whether a bird is territorial, when a rival song may work best, or breeding, when the call of a potential mate may hold the key to luring a bird out. Once in the open, watchers may have just a second or two to snap the perfect image of the species before it disappears back into the woods.
“They come, and they say goodbye,” adds fellow birdwatcher Kong San Ratanak, from Siem Reap, who hopes to one day spot a Cambodian Laughingthrush, a resident endemic to the Cardamom Mountains.
But local birders are not the only ones staking out the country’s forests, grasslands and wetlands. Though it remains a niche market, Cambodia attracts a number of visiting bird tourists each year, according to the Siem Reap-based Sam Veasna Centre (SVC) – named after a pioneering conservationist who died of malaria in 1999, aged 33, after cataloging many important birding and wildlife sites including large numbers of Sarus Cranes at Ang Trapeng Thmor in Banteay Meanchey province.
Offering birding tours across six Cambodian provinces, the centre received 850 guests last year and already employs 10 specialist guides, with plans afoot to hire seven more this year.
Part of Cambodia’s appeal lies in the rich birdlife drawn to the country by its vast landscapes and important geographical features, such as the Tonle Sap lake. Seasonally flooded forests, such as Prek Toal in Battambang, are rich in aquatic life sought by waterbirds, while dense forests and open grasslands also provide a home to many rare species.
“It’s one of the few countries where you can see six critically endangered species,” says Frédéric Goes, the author of the recently released book The Birds of Cambodia: An Annotated Checklist. Weighing in at 1.3 kilograms, it’s the result of more than 12 years of observations and surveys, and took more than six years to write.
“Cambodia has over 50 globally threatened or near-threatened species – it tells you how important the birds in Cambodia are in terms of conservation,” adds the ornithologist, explaining that a staggering 600 bird species, including the magnificent Giant Ibis – the national bird of Cambodia – have been spotted in the Kingdom.
But as modernity transforms the country’s landscape, which until relatively recently remained largely untouched by development following decades of civil war, habitats are coming under increasing pressure.
Goes says that grasslands bording the Tonle Sap – home to rare species like the Bengal Florican and a transit point for birds from Prek Toal – are shrinking fast as they are converted into farmland.
Key river channels, where birds can nest on sandbanks, are also facing an uncertain future. Apart from the collection of eggs and chicks by local people and destruction caused by dogs and buffaloes, hydro-dams are in the works, threatening habitat loss and flooding in areas like the Sesan River in Stung Treng province. A number of species have already become extinct in the country, including the river-based Indian Skimmer and the Black-Bellied Tern.
Goes also highlights deforestation as a major country-wide cause of concern for bird conservationists, as vast areas of forest disappear due to logging, economic land concessions and the creation of plantations, which he describes as “biological deserts.”
“It seems the country is heading towards what has happened in Thailand and Vietnam – saving face with a few pockets of habitat with species surviving on the brink of extinction,” he says.
Yet, with Cambodia key for the region’s birds, concerted efforts are underway to preserve habitats. Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has a strong presence in the country and is working to protect and monitor rare waterbirds on the Tonle Sap and in the Northern Plains.
With trade-driven hunting and egg collection still threatening bird populations – a particularly grisly image in The Birds of Cambodia shows a string of decapitated hornbill trophies for sale in the middle of a national park – WCS is working with the Cambodian Ministry of Environment and Forestry Administration to tackle this problem.
On the Tonle Sap Lake, about 30 rangers monitor and protect breeding colonies of large water birds at Prek Toal. This includes building semi-permanent platforms near colonies and regularly counting nests to monitor bird numbers, though Goes says a decision to cancel fishing lots near the lake has led to a resurgence in bird disturbance and egg and chick collection.
A nest protection project runs in the Northern Plains and sees communities receive up to $2.50 a day to help monitor and protect nests. “This reduces the exploitation of eggs and chicks, and also increases the breeding success of threatened waterbirds,” says Simon Mahood, technical advisor at WCS Cambodia.
Eco-tourism projects, such as the one introduced at the Giant Ibis breeding site of Tmatboey in the Northern Plains in 2005, are also having an impact on communities living side-by-side with rare and threatened species.
Tmatboey previously suffered from tree loss, land grabbing and hunting, and it initially proved a tall task to explain to the community the damage that they were causing, explains SVC director Johnny Orn, who developed an interest in birds after working as an Angkor Archeological Park tour guide and watching wildlife shows on Nat-Geo.
But when money started to arrive as a result of tours, villagers saw that tourism could be an incentive for environmental protection. The community now asks for official permission before expanding land or cutting down trees, and every tourist taking an SVC tour pays a compulsory $30 conservation contribution that goes towards a village development fund.
Informing younger generations about the importance of birds is also important.
SVC runs educational projects alongside its newly launched Young Birders Club, targeting both primary and secondary school pupils. Youngsters can go to the Siem Reap centre and are set to attend weekend wildlife spotting trips that visit temple sites as well as local spots such as the gardens outside Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor.
The importance of interacting with communities in a country where many people still hunt wild birds for food is a view shared by the BCEC, which conducts informal wildlife education initiatives during its trips. “We show them images of beautiful birds and say something interesting,” says Suy Senglim, who used to hunt birds before becoming a passionate birder. “I think that, at least, I inject some ideas for them to think about. We show them, together, that we do not use guns or slingshots to kill wildlife; we use cameras to photograph birds.”
There is no lack of beautiful birds in Cambodia, with colourful trogons, kingfishers and bee-eaters taking to the skies. In such tropical environments, even the most common birds can be spectacular, including the Brown-Throated Sunbird and the Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker, which can be spotted in central Phnom Penh.
Recent experience also indicated there are possibilities for ground-breaking developments, with Cambodia having a track record of new discoveries. “For the people who are discovering a new species, it’s one of the most exciting moments that can happen in their career,” says Goes.
In the early 2000s, the Mekong Wagtail was found in Cambodia and named Motacilla samveasnae in honour of the late ornithologist Sam Veasna. Local birdlife then hit international headlines again thanks to the fascinating discovery of yet another new species to science.
While working as an advisor for the monitoring of avian influenza in Cambodia’s wild birds, the last thing Howie Nielsen expected to stumble across was a new species. But in 2009, the American bird expert made a curious discovery when he netted a flame-headed bird near Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre. Excited at the potential discovery, he sent photos to peers but was advised the bird was an Ashy Tailorbird.
In January 2012, Nielsen spotted the unusual bird again in scrubland near a partially flooded building site, 15 kilometres north Phnom Penh at Prek Ksach, but believed it to be the “Ashy Tailorbird” he had previously seen.It wasn’t until a few months later when WCS worker Ashish John decided to try out a new camera at the site that the theory of a new species was re-investigated. John showed his snaps to a colleague, Simon Mahood, who noticed that the bird’s plumage was significantly different to the Ashy Tailorbird. The experts then returned to the site to carry out research and spotted eight pairs. Listening carefully to the birds’ song also fuelled their belief that they had discovered a new species. “We were both pretty giddy that day, as evidence was pointing to a new bird,” says Nielsen.
“That’s a big claim to make,” Mahood says. “Usually there’s only two or three new bird species discovered every year. They’re on remote islands, certainly not a scrubby bit of wasteland on the outskirts of a capital city like Phnom Penh.”
Mahood joined forces with other scientists and spent the next year writing a scientific paper. It was published in 2013, marking the acknowledgement of the newly discovered Orthotomus chaktomuk or the Cambodian Tailorbird.
“It’s a dream to discover a new bird species,” says Mahood. “I feel a bit silly because I had walked my dog there every day for six months and I never saw it. I feel like I was in the right place, at the right time, with the right people.“ That sense of unity is palpable throughout Cambodia’s patient and persistent birders.
Whoever you speak to – from local enthusiasts to international ornithologists – one thing quickly becomes clear. Whether its Suy Senglim explaining his ambition to photograph an Emerald Dove after two thwarted attempts or Kong San Ratanak’s love of the shy birds of the forest, all are united by an earnest passion for birds and a wish to preserve them for future generations.
“If you are a birdwatcher you never get bored,” adds SVC’s Johnny Orn. “l leave home and there’s no TV, but there’s always something flying.”
Last Chance to See
The critically endangered Giant Ibis is Cambodia’s national bird and even has a bus company named after it. The species has a distinctive mournful call, which gave rise to folktales associating them with the reincarnation of children abandoned in the forest and desperately calling their parents. Its sister species, the White-Shouldered Ibis, is also critically endangered.
Photo: Rob Overtoom
The Tonle Sap grasslands provide shelter for the world’s only viable population of Bengal Florican. The population of this rare resident has declined steeply over the years after being sought by hunters. Habitat loss is now the greatest threat as grasslands are converted into agricultural land. Experts say species extinction is likely by 2023 if grassland loss continues at current pace.
Photo: Marcus Handschuh
White-Rumped, Slender-Billed and Red-Headed Vultures
Three species of vultures are deemed critically endangered in Cambodia, though efforts to help their survival are underway. There is a nation-wide Vulture Conservation Programme running six “vulture restaurants” across north and northeastern provinces, where the scavenging birds are counted and fed to help support the population.
Photo: Jeff Schwilk
In the first half of the 20th-century, the Green Peafowl was described as the “commonest game-bird in Indochina.” Now it is globally threatened, with Cambodia providing a stronghold for the endangered species. Major threats remain the high value of live birds and their beautiful train feathers, plus their exposure to habitat loss.
Photo: Jeff Schwilk
With an estimated global population of just 1,200 to 1,800 individuals, the Greater Adjutant is the world’s rarest stork. Prek Toal in Battambang province supports 200 breeding pairs alone. Opportunistic hunting is still a threat. In 2000, 84 birds were stranded in Krous Kraom after heavy rain, with around 90 percent of them killed by villagers in a single night.
Source: The Birds of Cambodia: An Annotated Checklist by Frédéric Goes, with additional information from the Sam Veasna Centre.
Photo: Ashish John/WCS
Birdwatching: How To Get Started
If you like birds and want to learn more, several tools will help your birding career. Try sourcing a notebook for jotting down observations, a field guide for bird identification, binoculars suited to a tropical climate and, if you want to take photos, a camera.
When birding, it’s best to avoid wearing pink or red. Look out for the shape and colour of a bird and familiarise yourself with characteristics of wider bird families – parrots, larks or warblers, for instance – to narrow down the sub-species. Even from a city garden or balcony, watchers can spot interesting birds. But to get further afield, try visiting fields and floodplain marshes on the outskirts of the capital or woodlands near Phnom Tamao zoo.
The Siem Reap-based Sam Veasna Centre for Wildlife Conservation also organises birding tours to major sites, while Birds of Cambodia Education and Conservation runs a Facebook group where information, pictures and advice can be shared.
For books, try Robson’s A Field Guide to Birds of South-East Asia or the Khmer language publication Birds of Cambodia. For enthusiasts, Goes’ reference work, The Birds of Cambodia: An Annotated Checklist, is now available from Flora and Fauna International’s Phnom Penh office for $30 and the Sam Veasna Centre for $35 and contains an exhaustive account of 599 bird species, with 80 species illustrated in colour photographs. All proceeds from sales of the publication will be used to build awareness and capacity for bird conservation among young Cambodians. For more information on the book, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Key Birding Sites
Prek Toal Bird Reserve – Battambang province
Prek Toal core bird reserve is located in the northwest corner of the Tonle Sap and is home to the largest breeding colonies of water birds in Southeast Asia. Due to dramatic seasonal variations in water levels, the landscape contains a seasonally flooded forest that provides an essential habitat and nesting ground for birds including three species of cormorants, Oriental Darters, pelicans, storks, adjutants and ibises. There is also a significant population of Grey-headed Fish Eagle.
Ang Trapaeng Thmor (Sarus Crane Reserve) – Banteay Meanchey province
During the Khmer Rouge regime, the Ang Trapaeng Thmor reservoir was built by slave labour for irrigation. Today, the eight by 11 kilometre area is home to the Sarus Crane, as well as Milky Storks and large water birds. The crane is one of the most attractive species for birders to see, with the best time to spot them from January to May, though there are birds to see all year round.
Bengal Florican Reserve – Kampong Thom and Siem Reap provinces
These seasonally flooded grasslands are home to the world’s largest known population of the critically endangered Bengal Florican. It is also possible to see wintering Manchurian Reed Warblers, migrating Oriental Plovers in March, Greater Adjutants, Painted Storks and Sarus Cranes. The grasslands are usually visited as part of a longer itinerary en route to Tmatboey and beyond, though dedicated half-day trips can be arranged from Siem Reap.
Tmatboey – Preah Vihear province
Tmatboey is a remote village of 220 families located within Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary in the Northern Plains. It is one of only two strongholds of the Giant Ibis. White-shouldered Ibises are also found closer to villages. They both feed in ‘tropeang’ – seasonal pools typical of Cambodia’s savanna-forest. The best time to see these two species is January to April, though the White-shouldered Ibis can usually be spotted with reasonable certainty year round.
Seima Protected Forest – Mondulkiri province
More than 300 species of birds have been recorded in the 3,000-square-kilometre Seima Protected Forest and visitors stand a good chance of seeing the Great Hornbill and Green Peafowl. There are more than 20 species of woodpeckers including the Great Slaty, the largest in Asia.