A photo in a guidebook and a teasing challenge in the prose – and this naturalist is off to Southeast Asia in search of a bird. Luckily, his efforts are rewarded by 13.5 cm of feathers 30 m up a pine tree in Vietnam.
by Richard Hoath
Amongst my pet peeves are golf and articles that start off with quotations — after all Mark Twain did say that “golf was a good walk spoiled.” Oops. But at the risk of peeving myself, two quotes did come to mind this summer. One is attributed to Gary Player, a legend of my least favorite ‘sport’ and winner of many of golf’s top tournaments. “The harder I practice,” he said, “the luckier I get.” This has now morphed into the internet rent-a-quote of the “harder I work, the luckier I get.” The other is from Thomas Alva Edison of invention fame. To him is attributed “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Both proved true this summer in my quest for a small bird called the Vietnamese Goldfinch. And no, it is not found in Egypt.
The Vietnamese Goldfinch is just 13.5 cm long. The male is bright yellow below with a speckled band across the breast, a narrow and incomplete yellow collar and an otherwise black head. The back is olive with a prominent yellow streak on the wing. The female is similar, but overall duller and more streaky above. Both share a stout, pale pink bill. The Vietnamese Goldfinch had never crossed my avian radar until last summer when, returning from Cambodia I bought a copy of A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos at Phnom Penh airport. Flicking through it I caught up with species I had seen in the field over the previous three weeks, such species as the White-rumped Falcon, Cinnamon Bittern and Indochinese Cuckooshrike. And then on page 135 was a photograph of a black-headed finch with that stout pale pink bill. It was the Vietnamese Goldfinch Carduelis monguilloti. “Endemic to the Da Lat Plateau in southern Vietnam,” began the description “this species is globally Near Threatened, partly because its tiny range makes it very susceptible to extinction.”
Well, that is a red flag to the naturalist bull! Rare, extremely localized and found somewhere alluringly exotic it gave this naturalist a delightfully irrational quest. My next summer, this summer, would be spent on a journey to find this near-extinct bundle of feathers in a minute part of the Vietnamese highlands in Southeast Asia.
And that is where Gary Player and Thomas Edison come in. If this was to be a realistic Vietnamese Greenfinch chase as opposed to a mere wild goose chase, I had to put in the homework. I researched Vietnam. I researched Da Lat, a town of some 200,000 people in the center of the highland plateau of the same name. I found a hotel that had environmental credentials. I homed in on the Bidoup Nui Ba National Park. I researched the bird, its appearance and habits and habitat and knew I had to find pine forest at 1,100 to 1,900 m — and not just any pine, Pinus kesiya forest. I perspired. The photo in the guide was inspiration, but now I was doing the perspiration. It is a method that had served me well in searches for species over the years as diverse as Mountain Gorillas, African Wild Dogs, Herero Chats, Hemprich’s Hornbills, Clark’s Weavers and Sokoke Scops Owls. Gary Player, despite being a golfer, was right: you earn your luck.
Consequently on June 21 this summer I found myself at the Dreams Hotel in downtown Da Lat in the Vietnamese Central Highlands. The proprietress was a certain Madame Dung, a legend for her huge breakfasts according to the research, but also with all sorts of useful connections in and around the town. The town itself was not promising. Da Lat is a refuge in summer for Vietnamese from the Mekong Delta fleeing the cloying heat and humidity of the lowlands. There is a lake, always of potential for a naturalist, but the lake in Da Lat is completely tamed, surrounded by neatly manicured lawns and concrete banks. Other than pedalos disguised as vast white plastic swans, there was little other than a Long-tailed Shrike and a pair of nesting Black-collared Starlings. There were pines but the pines were enclosed within the posh enclaves of the Da Lat Golf Club. Golf and birds do go together, one of the ‘sport’s saving graces. But golfers and birders do not. Almost exactly a year earlier I had been unceremoniously kicked out of a golf club in Thailand while trying to watch a breeding colony of rather rare Asian Golden Weavers. I was not welcome at this club either.
Madame Dung though delivered. Back at the Dreams Hotel she had contacted people at the Bidoup Nui Ba National Park and that evening I met up with Tran Nhat Tien, a ranger at the park. The upside was he knew of two possible sites for the Vietnamese Goldfinch and that itself was the stuff of dreams. The downside was that we were to meet at 5am the next morning. More perspiration. I have to leave my apartment in Garden City at 6:30 every morning to get to work for an 8:30 start. Most people on vacation relish the prospect of a lie-in and a gentle start to the day. The natural world starts early, however — it is not called the dawn chorus for nothing — and so on holiday I generally find myself up and about far earlier. If the early bird gets the worm, the early naturalist spots the bird that gets the worm.
And so in the early hours of a drizzly Vietnamese morning with no coffee and far too early for Madame Dung’s infamous breakfast spread, I found myself in open kesiya pine forest clutching my binoculars and the same book that had started and inspired this irrational and frankly bonkers odyssey. There were gems. A Green-backed Tit put in an appearance atop a young pine only to be kicked off and replaced by a Little Pied Flycatcher. One pine frond, two new species. A male Long-tailed Minivet was all flame and flamboyance and from the broad-leafed forests in the valleys below came a chorus not of birds but Buff-cheeked Gibbons. I got my first Da Lat endemic, a chunky Da Lat Crossbill once lumped in with the Red Crossbill but now considered by many a good species.
So here I was after a journey of thousands of miles across the globe, after hours in buses of varying types and (dis)comforts, after negotiating long tracks of glutinous, rich red and soggy soil and equipped with all the tools of my trade. The supporting cast was showing nicely. The star was proving stage shy. Then in the thankfully open top of a tall pine came an undistinguished twittering. Undistinguished twitterings are always worth following up. Up went the bins and there she was, a fine female Vietnamese Greenfinch and below, and just to the left a slightly more resplendent male. A year ago I had not even heard of the bird. A photo in a guidebook, a teasing challenge in the prose, the research, the hard work and travel were all rewarded by 13.5 cm of feathers 30 m up a pine tree in Vietnam.
For those reluctant to travel halfway across the globe for their greenfinches and thus for those who are sane, the European Greenfinch Carduelis chloris is found here in Egypt. It is an uncommon breeder in the Delta and North Sinai but is more numerous as a winter visitor, especially in the north. It is a chunky finch around 14.5 cm long and predominantly green suffused with gray and with a bold yellow wing patch and should be looked out for in farmland and agricultural areas. It enjoys a wide range from the British Isles east across Europe and North Africa to the Middle East and western Asia. I saw my Vietnamese Greenfinches on June 22. On June 23 the UK voted for Brexit. How this will affect the British population of the European Greenfinch I am not sure, but I hope it does not affect its freedom to migrate to more clement European wintering grounds as the cold weather sets in.
Richard Hoath is a Senior Instructor at AUC’s Department of Rhetoric and Composition. He has published extensively about Egypt’s wildlife and fauna.