A Birding Adventure in Vietnam: Team Pilipinas at the 1st Vietnam Bird Race

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Vietnam Bird Race 2024

We arrived early at Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. I asked Gemini, Google’s AI model, about the origin of the name Tan Son Nhat, wanting to know if it was a heroic name. It said it is a village name, and its origin was most likely derived from the Khmer words “Tân” (meaning “field”) and “Sơn Nhất” (meaning “first mountain”). This would refer to the fact that the area was once a rice field at the foot of a mountain.

Saigon, on the other hand, was popularized by the French in the late 1800s. France occupied Vietnam for six decades. Gemini said the name may either have come from Vietnamese characters “sài” (meaning “firewood”) and “gòn” (meaning “cottonwood trees”) or from the Khmer term “Tay ngon” (meaning “tribute from the west.).” When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the country was reunified under communist rule. In honour of Ho Chi Minh, the revolutionary leader who played a crucial role in Vietnam’s independence, Saigon was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City on July 2, 1976.

Vietnam was divided by the Geneva Accords in 1954 after the Vietnamese defeated the French. The country was divided at the 17th parallel, with North Vietnam ruled by the communist Viet Minh and South Vietnam led by a US-backed government. By 1965, the US became deeply involved in the war with large-scale deployment of U.S. ground troops. But Vietnam defeated the Americans in 1975 with the fall of Saigon.

We have just returned from the 1st Vietnam Bird Race. It was organized by Vietnamese ornithologist Nguyen Hoai Bao, who also heads the Vietnam Wildlife Photography Club, Wildtour Co. Ltd, and the Wild Bird Hotel, which are behind the bird race. Twenty teams took part in the race – including two teams from Malaysia, one team from the Philippines, one team from Cambodia, and two individual photographers from Peru and Norway who joined the Vietnamese teams. Some 77 bird photographers and birdwatchers, including 17 foreigners, made up the participating teams. We represented the Wild Bird Photographers of the Philippines (WBPP) and adopted the name Team Pilipinas.

Team Philippines at Vietnam Bird Race
The team from the Philippines.

My teammates were in Vietnam for the first time. For me, it was the second visit. I visited Vietnam when I attended the APEC High-Level Policy Dialogue on Human Resources Development in the Digital Age on May 15-16, 2017, in Hanoi as Undersecretary (Deputy Secretary or Deputy Minister) of Education of the Philippine Government. I entered Vietnam unofficially three days before the conference to take advantage of the weekend and catch a quick birding before the official events. Still, the government could track me down as I was birding in Cuc Phuong National Park in Ninh Bình Province.

While waiting for the check-in counter to open, we found an interesting article from Tuoi Tre, one of Vietnam’s most widely read newspapers, about the 1st Vietnam Bird Race we had just participated in. It was written in Vietnamese, so we asked Google to translate it.

The author, Mr. Huy Tho, gave this report, which piqued our interest:

“The most impressive thing is the foreign teams. Although they are guests, more or less unfamiliar with the terrain, they are very professional. For example, on the morning of May 11, I went on a boat with the Philippine team, they had a clear strategy, the person using the 600mm telephoto (plus the 1.4x adapter, resulting in a focal length of 840mm) at the bow of the boat, two people using the 100-400mm lens flexibly and one person specializing in binoculars to find birds and guide their teammates to shoot.

 

The Philippine team leader, Mr. Goel L. Lamela, 64 years old this year, said: “We have been participating in competitions like this for over 20 years, so we are used to it”! After landing at Tan Son Nhat airport, this team immediately moved to Tram Chim and hired a boat to survey the terrain and come up with a very specific plan. Mr. Goel also said that Bird Race is a game that not only serves those who love to photograph and watch wild birds today, but also takes care of the future generation, with a variety of activities.”

We laughed and joked with Loel, who was mistakenly quoted as Goel, about the report mentioning his alleged 20-year experience in bird races. He said he never mentioned that. His first bird race was only about 6 or 7 years ago at the 2017 Palawan Bird Photography Race.

But we are amazed at the author’s keen observation. He was on the boat with us, and we did not know he was a reporter covering the bird race. He was actually right in his description of our movements.

When we arrived at the airport at 12:25 am on May 10, and after clearing with Immigration and Customs, we drove straight to Tram Chim National Park in Dong Thap province, the venue of the bird race, which is about 147 kilometres away. We arrived at the Wild Bird Hotel at around 5:00 am. We were supposed to wait for the bus the organizers provided for all foreign delegates at 1:00 pm. Still, we decided to forgo this generous offer and drive earlier to the venue instead. The best way to spend 10-12 hours of waiting time is birding, even if we have to pay more for the private ride.

We thought we would be the first participants to arrive at the venue, but to our surprise, some Vietnamese birdwatchers were already having breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant, waiting for their boat rides. They were a few minutes ahead of us while we were still unpacking, setting up our camera gear, and quickly grabbing breakfast.

The team spent the whole morning in the boat, not surveying for the race but rather getting quality shots of birds we could not do during the race. The race is primarily about taking more photos of birds, not about taking good pictures. But the morning boat ride already gave us a clear overview of the entire wetland, a national park in the Plain of Reeds in the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam. The park was established to restore a degraded wetland and protect several rare birds, particularly the Sarus Crane — a species on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

I was quite disappointed that we could not see or photograph the Sarus Cranes, which, we later learned, have become a rare sight because the water level in the park is quite high. Sarus Cranes prefer shallow wetlands where they can easily reach food sources with their long legs and beaks.

Sarus Cranes once foraged in the wetlands of the Philippines. Christian Perez wrote in an article titled “The Sarus Crane Illustrated 1847” in eBON, the official online magazine of Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP):

“American Ornithologist Richard McGregor called it (Sarus Crane) Sharpe’s Crane and reported in 1909 that it “is abundant in the vicinity of Cabanatuan, Nueva Ecija”. He adds that this species has been reported from the Candaba Swamp in central Luzon and Worcester found it abundant in northern Luzon. He says: “I saw Antigone sharpei in large numbers in Cagayan and Isabela during my recent trip, 1906, through those provinces.

 

I am informed that these birds nest on the ground in May, contenting themselves with scraping together and flattening down a little grass on which to deposit their eggs. About August, they lose their long wing feathers and, when in these conditions, can rise but a few feet from the ground. The people of Isabela then pursue them on horseback and take them with lassos, although according to the statements of the hunters, the birds, aided by their wings, run about as fast as deer.

 

Edward Dickinson, in 1991, says, “probably extirpated”. Robert Kennedy, in 2000, also said, “rare, perhaps extirpated.” It seems that these authors were not 100 per cent sure and did not want to commit in writing that the Sarus Crane was gone from the Philippines. Present-day birders know that it is impossible to imagine that the Sarus Crane might still be hiding somewhere in Luzon and that it is definitely extirpated, as stated in the WBCP 2016 Checklist.”

My photos of the Sarus Cranes, once on display at the National Museum of the Philippines and a taxidermy bird were taken in Cambodia.

Photo of Vietnam Bird Race 2024
Birds seen during the race.

The morning boat trip also showed us how hot it can get from 10 am to noon. So, the first thing on our to-do list for the race was to get ourselves an ice bucket full of ice with our water bottles in it to quench our thirst and wet face towels from the hotel so we could always put them on our napes, necks, faces, and arms to cool us down. That gave us the comfort we needed during those extremely hot hours.

During the race, we discovered another way to cool down. We soaked our multifunction neck tubes in ice-cold water and wore them to cover our entire heads and only show our faces. This neck tube, also called neck gaiter, can be worn as a face mask, headband, or beanie. Neck gaiters soaked in ice-cold water were much better than cold towels. It was as if our heads were filled with cool air. I wondered why the journalist, Mr Huy Tho, could not account for this small but very helpful innovation, even though we saw him remove an ice-cold water bottle from the water bucket and replace it with a warm one from the box.

Mr. Huy Tho was precise when he described our positioning and strategy. Two of us, Loel Lamela (WBPP trustee) and Djop Tabaranza (WBPP treasurer) were positioned at the rear bow. They had the task of photographing birds more than 50 meters away. Loel had a 600mm lens. He added a 2x teleconverter to extend his range to 1,200mm and another 2x teleconverter to increase the range to 2,400mm. I even asked him how to add two 2x teleconverters. When I tried the same technique when I photographed the Philippine Eagle in Mt. Apo in 2014, I could not achieve that with the same brand of teleconverters. I could only add a 2x and a 1.4x when they belong to different brands like Canon and Kenko. He said he uses the same Canon brand teleconverter, but in different versions; one is version II and the other III.

Prof. Bert Madrigal (WBPP secretary) and I were positioned at the front bow and were specifically tasked with photographing birds less than 50 meters away. Therefore, I used my 100-500mm lens, while Prof. Bert used the 400mm f/5.6, which we both found flexible and handy.

Djop and I used Optisan binoculars and scouted the areas with birds. Haring Ibon-Birds in Focus distributes Optisan optics in the Philippines. The clarity of the binocs helps us identify birds in far places. We were also tasked to identify birds and describe their locations to our teammates. Our targets were sandpipers and plovers, which we thought would tilt the balance in our favour. Unfortunately, we could not find these migratory birds congregating in wetlands. Perhaps they had already left as the migration season had ended. I wondered why the bird race was done at the tail end of the migration season and not at its peak.

One limitation we experienced was communication with the boatman. We could not understand each other because of the language barrier. We had already experienced this on our previous boat trip the day before. Apart from the language barrier, the skipper could not hear our knocking on the bow or our shouts to slow down. He only responded when our calls were loud enough. Understandably, he was sitting right next to the boat’s noisy engine. Our supposed solution was to take a rope to tie on his arms so that we could get his attention. But we could not do that because we were told we could not stop the boat driver. Each boat driver had their schedule and would stop only in specific areas as planned by the organizer. We understood this during the briefing, but it turned out that we could still instruct the boat driver. A case of “lost in translation”.

After the morning boat trip, Loel, Djop, and Prof. Bert birded in various areas near the Wild Bird Hotel. I stayed back at the restaurant to finalize a presentation I would be giving to the participants in the evening—an introduction to Philippine birds, the three major events happening in the Philippines this year, and the various birding tour packages offered by Bird Finder Philippines, to which we also belong.

Vietnam Bird Race
Team Pilipinas in action.

The next morning, from 5:30 am to 8:30 am, we all birded separately in different areas near the Wild Bird Hotel. We spent the last 30 minutes finalizing our bird list, although we had already done our initial listing and tallying of photos the night before. We counted 65 that night, wanting ten more the next day. This was spent over Saigon Beers in the company of Cambodian friends who had decided to drop off the race and instead go the next day to Nam Cat Tien, a tropical forest park in Vietnam, as they were not in a position to photograph birds. They thought spotting, sighting, and listing them would be enough for the race. Another case of “lost in translation”.

We also did not submit any photos for the best photo competition. We thought that only migratory birds in action would qualify, but it turns out that any bird or all birds in action can be submitted. Once again, this is another case of “lost in translation.”

For the next Bird Race, we would suggest that school or college students who are already fluent in English be assigned as translators or liaison officers for the international teams to ensure that nothing is lost in translation and to facilitate communication with the boatmen, hotel and restaurant staff, and delegates amongst themselves. These students would also learn about things they want to ask or are curious about from foreign delegates.

WBPP Team Pilipinas photographed around 68 species, making it fourth place. Our team was only 1 point behind the Vietnamese team, Spot-billed Pelican, who scored 69 points and took third place. Second place went to the Vietnamese team, Bengal Florican, with 70 bird species, and the winner was the Vietnamese team, Brown Bobby, with 71 bird species. All four teams would be tied with a very small margin. WBPP Team Pilipinas was the only foreign team to win the very close bird race.

Interestingly, the local Vietnamese teams adopted the names of birds as their teams. We chose WBPP as Team Pilipinas to emphasize our country of origin. It is better to have Team Malaysia, Team Cambodia, Team Sabah Malaysia (if more than one team is from the same country), etc., as names for foreign teams to emphasize the internationality of the competition.

We missed three species – the Large Scimitar Babbler that we saw near the restaurant when we arrived but was nowhere to be seen during the actual race, and a species of Skylark and the Black-capped Kingfisher that we could not photograph. We also missed the owl and nightjar as we had not gone owling the night before, preferring to note down the day’s catch over some beers. We also missed the Spotted-billed Pelican, Comb Duck, Spoon-billed Duck or Northern Shoveler, and others the winning teams saw.

The Vietnam Bird Race was unique as all participants had to search for birds in the wetlands by boat, which was mandatory in the morning. In the Palawan Bird Race, service vans drive the participating teams through Puerto Princesa City. At the same time, in the Fraser’s Hill Bird Race and the Sabah Bird Race, all participants walk through the birding areas, though not as comprehensive as an entire city like Puerto Princesa or a wetland park like Tram Chin.

The highlight of this competition was the appearance of two migratory bird species, the Comb Duck and the Northern Shoveler. This was an extremely rare sighting and a positive sign that Tram Chim is recovering well.

2024 Vietnam Bird Race
At the 1st Vietnam Bird Race.

The Vietnam Bird Race is also excellent in three more ways.

  1. Firstly, a workshop was held for children and young students on painting by Dao Van Hoang. The children and students were then asked to make their watercolour paintings with the photos of Vietnamese bird photographers as models or references. The race delegates and some guests later judged the students’ works, each receiving a sticker to put on the artworks they thought were outstanding and excellent. But it did not stop there.The top 8 works of the students who received the most stickers were auctioned off during the award and closing ceremony for a total of 27 million dongs. A representative from Canon donated another 3 million, and photographer Doan Như Hoan – nicknamed Bay Hoang Da – donated 20 million to round up the 50 million (USD 2,000; PhP 114,000). The proceeds were donated to the Tam Nong Education Department for scholarships. The campaign interestingly combined the best bird photos, children learning to draw and drawing birds, and their works used to raise money for education. This is wildlife awareness, conservation initiatives, and support for education.

    The lecturer and facilitator in the painting workshop for kids, Dao Van Hoang, was with us on the bus ride back to Ho Chi Minh. He approached me as he was very interested in seeing the Philippine Eagle, and then we conversed and tried to learn something from each other. I learned he left Vietnam by boat as a refugee four years after the war ended in 1975 and settled in France. He returned to Vietnam in 1996 and is now a full-time wildlife painter.

  2. Secondly, the organizers offered a workshop in the evening where any interested delegate or team could share or present something to all participants, including local organizers and guests. Malaysia presented the newly renovated Utan Lodge in Sandakan, Sabah, featuring a bird hide. Mr Bao, the head of the organizing committee, and Mr Yong Ding Li from Birdlife Asia presented the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. I introduced Philippine birds, the three major birding events in 2024, and the Bird Finder Philippines travel packages. The major Philippine birding events are the Subic Bay 1st International Photomarathon (Birds, Wildlife, Landscape) scheduled on August 30 to September 1, 2024; the 7th Puerto Princesa Underground River International Birding Festival in Palawan from November 17 to 19, 2024; and the 13th Asian Bird Fair in Las Pinas, Metro Manila from November 20to 23, 2024.
  3. Thirdly, there was a fun contest about the rarest bird photo. Each team was asked to submit a photo of a species they believed they were the only ones who had photographed. It was fun to know that others could easily dispute one’s claim, albeit in a boastful yet friendly way. The winner, a local team, won five cases of Saigon beer, which they shared with everyone.
Birdwatching in Vietnam
It was a beautiful scene during the Vietnam Bird Race 2024.

The evening workshops and the rarest bird photo contest were excellent activities that strengthened friendship, solidarity, and camaraderie among local and foreign birders who participated in the race. I always look for this in international birding events—the opportunity and time to interact and establish friendships with fellow birders.

I recall what Noah Strycker wrote in his book “Birding Without Borders – An Obsession, A Quest, and The Biggest Year in the World”:

This is what birding is all about – people with a shared passion, sometimes from entirely different continents and maybe not even speaking the same language, meeting as strangers, joining in a common goal, and becoming the best of friends.”

We felt very comfortable in Vietnam and with the Vietnamese. We know that Filipino involvement in the Vietnam War was not in combat. Gemini said Filipino medical personnel were sent to assist Vietnamese refugees as early as 1954. Throughout the war, the Philippines deployed over 10,000 troops. However, they were not combat troops. They operated under the Philippine Civic Action Group-Vietnam (PHILCAG-V) and focused on medical care, infrastructure development and other civilian projects in South Vietnam.

Nevertheless, we suffered losses. About nine Filipinos lost their lives in Vietnam. There is no official information on the cause of death, but we know that they were mistaken for Vietnamese. Our loss is just a blip compared to millions of Vietnamese deaths.

Gemini further said that the US did not launch direct combat operations from the Philippines at the time due to growing anti-war sentiment and concern for Philippine sovereignty. The US military bases in the Philippines were used for logistical support rather than direct combat operations, specifically as a staging area and supply depot, rest and recuperation, and communications and intelligence gathering.

In 1991, the Philippine Senate rejected a treaty that would have extended the US military presence beyond the expiration of the 1947 Military Bases Agreement, which would have granted the US access to Philippine bases for 99 years.

One of those turned-over bases is now the Subic Bay Freeport Zone, and it hosts the Subic Bay Rainforest, where about 213 bird species have been recorded, 83 of which are Philippine endemics (21 are endemic to Luzon Island).

Subic Bay Freeport Zone is the venue of the Subic Bay 1st International Photomarathon (Birds, Wildlife, Landscape) scheduled from August 30 to September 1, 2024.

Alain Pascua
Alain Pascua, seated in the boat.

This article on A Birding Adventure in Vietnam was written by Alain Pascua and photos by Alain and WBPP.

* Alain Pascua is the co-founder and president of the Wild Bird Photographers of the Philippines, a member of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines, and author of Haring Ibon: The Great Philippine Eagle book and co-author of Endangered Bird Species of the Philippines book. He served as Undersecretary (Deputy Minister or Deputy Secretary) of the Department of Education of the Republic of the Philippines from 2016 to 2022.

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Bird Watching Asia is a self-funded project to promote bird watching in Malaysia and around Asia.

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