Legally Blind Birding

Testing the Patience of Birding Guides Around the World

Week 44: Oct 23 – Oct 29, Mandalay, Myanmar

Working Days: 5

New species identified: 12

Total species to date:  1591

63.6 % of goal, 84.6 % of year used

Sites visited: Irrawaddy River, Paleik Lake, Mandalay area

If you were to fly from Bangkok going north-northwest towards Chiang Mai, but keep going about 50% longer, you’d end up not too far from Mandalay; flight time is less than two hours. The only other Burmese city you can fly to directly from Bangkok is Yangon, which offers few species different from what one would pick up after nine months in Thailand.

We had a guide and a driver for both Saturday and Sunday, and I cannot imagine trying to bird here any other way. Outside of the hotel and airport, language is a problem. You’d hardly know the British were once here, compared to some other formerly colonized countries we have visited. Also found it interesting that while they drive the same type of car as in Thailand (wheel on the right side), they drive on the right side of the road. It felt odd; like everyone was a driving a postal vehicle.

All told we got 50 species, 11 lifers and one new for the year.  We picked up a couple of “future lifers” – should the taxonomy changes bestow them upon us at some point – these were the Burmese Myna, currently a subspecies of Vinous-breasted Myna, and the Burmese Collared-Dove, which is still a Eurasian Collared-dove for eBird.

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Eurasian (Burmese) Collared-dove with huge yellow eye-ring

Another future eBird split, apparently, could be the White-bellied Minivet to Jerdon’s Minivet, which is a Myanmar endemic. As lovely as the many red and black minivets of Asia are, this one really stands out for me.

whitebelliedminivet

White-bellied (Jerdon’s) Minivet

Our guide worked hard to get us as many of the endemics in the area as possible, and we picked up White-throated Babbler, Burmese Bushlark, Hooded Treepie, and Irrawady Bulbul. The treepie was quite difficult; my wife managed to see one, in flight. I got a poor recording of its call, and uploaded it to Xeno-Canto, as there was only one recording for it there.

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White-throated Babbler, a cuckoo wannabe

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Burmese Bushlark

On Sunday afternoon we took a ferry up the river in order to get Sand Lark, White-tailed Stonechat, and Red Avadavat. This was a nice way to see some of the city as well. Even up here, the Irrawaddy is huge, and the hillsides dotted with temples are lovely.

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Along the Irrawaddy River

 

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Male White-tailed Stonechat

Finally, as a sometime-fisherman, I have to express my admiration for this guy. (Fishing is what I did until I discovered birding.) There were times when he was out there so deep that only his cap was out of the water.

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Can this even be called wading?

Next weekend: One last weekend that will not involve an airport, until mid-January.  Driving to Khao Yai National Park.

Week 43: Oct 16 – Oct 22, Shanghai, China

Working Days: 5

New species identified: 3

Total species to date:  1579

63.2 % of goal, 82.7% of year used

Sites visited: Nanhui Dongtan area

A Shanghai Smackdown!

When I planned for this trip, it was hard for my interest not to be drawn toward the eBird hotspot called Nanhui Dongtan, which is the hottest pot in the area, as seen from orange marker below. This map is for October only. Otherwise the marker is an even better deep red.

Shanghaihotspots

Shanghai area hotspots for October. The perfectly circular, artificial lake at the bottom right is called Dishui. It has a nice Crowne Plaza hotel on it.

On Saturday we walked over 17 km (10 miles) from the Crown Plaza Harbor View hotel located on Lake Dishui, out to where the marker is on the map, and back. I chose walking because I’d looked at satellite view and could find nothing (aside from the beach) in terms of habitat variety in the entire area. Might as well bird the fields and roadsides, I thought, as passerines were our main focus, and many of our targets have been reported in the area of late.

We got zero target birds to show for this effort.

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The endless walk at Nanhui Dongtan

This area is largely open fields of goldenrod and the occasional reedbed and pond. It was teeming with Crested Myna, Daurian Redstart, Vinous-throated Parrotbill, Eurasian Tree Sparrow and Long-tailed Shrike. But not much else. As there were few shorebirds we needed, we spent only enough time looking seaward to verify that there was nothing out there we could use.

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Long-tailed Thrush. Seen everywhere.

On Sunday we decided to change things up, and we birded the extensive hotel grounds and environs; this got us three lifers; Blue-and-White Flycatcher, Rufous-tailed Robin, and Gray-backed Thrush. One of each.

Around 13:00, Claire found a new bird. She saw it wonderfully. Described it to me, and its location, as I stood right next to her.

“See the two rocks? Go to the trees to the left and look between them.”

I looked and saw no bird there. My field of view is so narrow that even through binoculars, I have to scan around to try to see everything that can be in the image.

“Oh, now it flew down to the path! Right on the ground!”

I looked at the path and started scanning its length. No bird that I could see.

“Oh shit, it just flew off.”

I spent the next 3.5 hours looking for that bird. It not only stayed invisible, it never made a sound, so no falling back on my usual manner of getting around my disability – by recording the call and verifying it. Being visually disabled sucks. Yes, every birder misses birds – it is part of the process, but it is particularly frustrating when you know it is right there in front of you, and 99 100 out of 100 normal people would have seen it in your stead. I was about ready to throw my bins down and walk off and be done with this pursuit so ill-suited to my terrible eyes.

Final score: Red-flanked Bluetail 1, Blind Birder 0.

Can’t let the frustration get to me. I’ll be damned if I will not get to > 5,200 species in the next few years, no matter how many more trips I have to make and how many extra hours I will need.

Next week: Mandalay, Myanmar

Week 42: Oct 9 – Oct 16, North Sulawesi, Indonesia

Working Days: 3

New species identified: 38

Total species to date:  1576*

63.0 % of goal, 80.8% of year used

Sites visited: Tangkoko Bataungus Nature Reserve

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Just outside of Tangkoko

Monday October 15 was a Thai holiday, so we took the following Tuesday off and went to Sulawesi. Friday we had a late night arrival in Singapore; Saturday we were in Manado mid-afternoon. From there it is several hours drive east to Tangkoko, where there is a large nature reserve. We stayed just outside the park and had a guide; we were able to get in two full days and a few hours Saturday night and Tuesday morning. Then back to Singapore and getting home Tuesday night.

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Olive-backed Sunbird female, by night

Sulawesi Nightjar and Sulawesi Scops Owl were the only ‘night birds’ we encountered at night- but our guide had a knack for finding sleeping passerines, such as the sunbird above. We came across the Ochre-bellied Boobook, below, mid-day.

ochrebelliedboobook

Ochre-bellied Boobook, by day

The big draw for this area in terms of nocturnal animals is the Spectral Tarsier, the world’s smallest primate, which we were lucky to see as they climbed out of their tree dwellings at twilight. Also saw the strange Bear Couscous, a marsupial of the forest.

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Bear Couscous

We had a total of 62 birds, with 38 new for the year. The majority of these were Sulawesi endemics. What was surprising was that the overall activity level was very low. Even during prime morning hours, at prime locations, we could go long stretches of time without seeing much of anything. The most commonly seen (per eBird) target birds for us, for example, were Black Sunbird and Grey-sided Flowerpecker. We might have seen three individuals of each.

greatbilledKF

Great-billed, or Black-billed Kingfisher

There are several lovely kingfishers here, a number of which are forest birds. In addition to the noisy and ubiquitous Collared Kingfisher that we have been hearing throughout Southeast Asia, we found Sulawesi Dwarf-, Lilac-cheeked, and Green-backed Kingfisher in the woods; Kingfisher and Black-billed (Great-billed) Kingfisher were easy to find in mangroves.

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Lilac-cheeked Kingfisher

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Sulawesi Dwarf Kingfisher

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Green-backed Kingfisher

 

Our first of three nights at the very basic lodge that we stayed at was an interesting one. The rooms were built as duplexes, with a bathroom, a bed with mosquito netting, a closet, and little else. When we arrived we noticed that there was a second door, and we didn’t bother checking to see that it was locked, or seeing where it led (it led outside).

At about 11:30, I heard Claire get up (to use the bathroom?), and then she did something I’d never head her do before. She screamed – four times, each time in a more disturbing manner, with increasing volume. It was like something out of a horror film, but very real. By the time I was upright and climbing out of bed, it was over. The first thought I had was of a huge tarantula we’d seen a few hours earlier on a tree trunk while night birding. Then I thought, no, perhaps a snake was in the bathroom… I dismissed these ideas quickly, though – I’ve never seen her bothered by any animal of any kind.

It was full dark for this little event, and with my eyesight, I’m not going to see anything anyway. So what caused her shrieking? “Someone was just in the room with us,” she said. Creepy. When she had gotten up, she had seen that the second door was standing open. After she went to it to have a look, she turned back and saw a man standing there behind her, near the bathroom. He had his finger to his lips, as if stupidly thinking that such a gesture would prevent her the natural reaction anyone would have upon finding a stranger in their room. By the time she’d finished screaming he was out the door and gone. I never saw any of this. Happily, he stole nothing and did nothing except scare the living hell out of us.

Pro tip: even at an eco-lodge, check that all the doors are locked. That isn’t a mistake we will ever make again.

Sulawesimalkoha

Sulawesi Malkoha

Next weekend: Shanghai

* I reran the numbers for the year and found that I had overcounted by 11 (ugh!) – the latest values reflect the correction. The plot below shows where my total has been coming in as a function of week. The y-axis represents the fraction of the goal of 2500. As can be seen, after about the first half of the year, my accrual rate has dropped.

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Progress versus goal – second half of year is just not getting it done!

Week 41: Oct 2 – Oct 8, New Delhi, India

Working Days: 5

New species identified: 12

Total species to date:  1549

62.0 % of goal, 78.8% of year used

Sites visited: Okhla Bird Sanctuary, Greater Kailash R Block District Park

Arrived in Delhi late Friday night. For Saturday, the second ‘Big Day’ for eBird in 2018, we spent the entire time at Okhla Bird Sanctuary (OBS), in the southeast area of the city.

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Immature Shikra after bathing

This looked like a good, simple trip on paper – the sanctuary is a bright red hotspot on the eBird map, and lies right at the foot of a metro station (also named for the sanctuary). The same metro line connects with the airport, and I picked a hotel that was midway between airport and hotspot, also near a station.

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Okhla Bird Sanctuary metro station

After arriving at OBS station, getting to the reserve is a bit tricky. There are no signs, so all you can really do is track your location on your phone and just head in the general direction. After one false start we got across the very busy road between the station and the reserve and then looked for a sidewalk. LOL. There are no sidewalks!

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The walk to the Sanctuary – careful!

The above photo indicates how to get to the park. Simply walk along this street against traffic and when the trucks come, climb up into the vegetation. There was about 100 or so meters of this fun. Helpfully, everyone will blare their horns at you so you know when they are bearing down on you.

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Okhla Bird Sanctuary Office

Eventually you will reach a gate and a side road, and this is OBS. The photo above is of the office. We arrived just after 7:15, but the attendant informed us that we could not go in until 7:30, which is the opening time for winter. He pointed at the sign. He didn’t speak english – no one around here did.

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View from tower in OBS

Through a series of hand gestures and written figures, we came to undestand that entry costs more, depending on the number of binoculars and cameras you bring. We paid 1750 rupees. My wife used the extra waiting time to walk back down the road to where someone was selling water and bags of chips. This would be our lunch, as there are no vendors inside the park.

cowtower

Don’t visit here if you don’t like birding with cows!

Once inside, the sanctuary basically consists of a long road that skirts the edge of a large lake. There are plenty of cows – it became impossible to look up into the trees and move to track birds without feeling a foot go into that unmistakable softness. It helps to remember that everyone else here is stepping in it too. No matter – any serious birder will suffer much worse than walking in cowshit in order to get new species.

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Typical scene along the road in OBS

The trees lining the streets held birds but not as many as hoped for. There were countless House Crows and Purple Sunbirds; less common were Jungle Babbler, Brown-headed Barbet, Rufous Treepie, Indian Peafowl, and Green Bee-eater.

junglebabbler

Jungle Babbler

The lake and various mudlflats yielded the majority of birds – we had no scope so I am sure we missed a few. There are no blinds here and the distances are pretty substantial. New birds for the year included Red-naped Ibis, Indian Spot-billed Duck, Eurasian Spoonbill, Northern Pintail, and Ruddy Shelduck.

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Yellow-footed Pigeon

On Sunday we had just a few hours in the morning to go out, before needing to get to the airport. We found a small park about a 10 minute walk from our hotel, and got there before sunrise. In a couple of hours we added three lifers: Indian Grey Hornbill, Yellow-footed Pigeon, and Large Grey Babbler. Odly we could find an Indian Robin to save our lives. Seems that we dipped on a lot of “easy” birds – but we will get our chance to avenge this when we go to Benagluru in December.

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Rufous Treepie and friend in city park, after locals scattered all manner of food for them

Next week: Sulawesi

Week 40: Sept 25 – Oct 1, Hong Kong

Working Days: 5

New species identified: 14

Total species to date:  1537

61.5 % of goal, 76.9% of year used

Sites visited: Mai Po, Kam Tin, Long Valley, Tai Po Kau, San Tin

Hong Kong is another site well-suited for a weekend trip from Bangkok: about three hours direct with lots of flight options. We got in Friday night and were able to bird until Sunday 17:00 before needing to return to the airport. All told we saw at least 107 species, 14 of which were new for the year. Our guide was David Diskin, who has written about the fabulous Mai Po wetland.

A rather destructive typhoon passed through here about two weeks ago. There were fallen trees everywhere we went and various park areas and trails are still closed while the clean up continues.

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Hong Kong is a mess at the moment

The bulk of the day Saturday was spent at Mai Po. We tried to time our arrival at the mudflats with the approaching tide. The water moves in very quickly here. Within about 30 minutes, the mudflats shown below, as well as all of the smaller waders and peeps, were gone.

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Tide coming in at Mai Po

There were no rarities out in the bay, but we were able to get a number of shorebirds that had escaped us so far this year, such as Red-necked Phalarope, Dunlin, and Broad-billed Sandpiper. A nice surprise in the fig trees was an early Chinese (or Yellow-billed) Grosbeak.

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Red-necked Phalarope

Once the tide drove the birds out of the flats, many could be found in some freshwater ponds which can be viewed from hides, a good place to be during the sunny mid-day low period.

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Mai Po mangroves

We also walked the trails around the fish ponds at San Tin – like Mai Po this is a large area that talks several hours to fully cover. An oddball female Common Pochard was there – apparently has spent the entire summer in these ponds.

 

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Immature Yellow Bittern at San Tin

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Looks like the Wood Sandpipers are awaiting the enemy advance

For forest birds we focused on Tai Po Kau, which had several areas roped off due to the storm. It was teeming with activity here, although half the birds were either Japanese White-eyes or Red-whiskered Bulbuls. A nice variety of color was found with Silver-eared Mesia, Blue-winged Minla, Red-billed Leiothrix, and Fork-tailed Sunbird. Disappointed that we dipped on the Hwamei, but the end count of 14 is more than I expected.

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The ubiquitous Red-whiskered Bulbul

Next up: Delhi, India

Week 39: Sept 18 – Sept 24, Oman

Working Days: 5

New species identified: 26

Total species to date:  1523

60.9 % of goal, 75% of year used

Sites visited: Al Qurm Nature Park, Al-Ansab Lagoons

Our first ever trip to Oman. Nice country; welcoming and friendly people, excellent airport in Muscat, and beer is not hard to find. A six hour direct flight. We left on a Friday night and got in before midnight; the return flight gets to Bangkok early Monday morning, just in time for work.

spottedfc

Spotted Flycatcher, another poorly named species

We stayed in Muscat the entire time. There are a few obvious places to visit: since fresh water and trees are scarce here, the birds are concentrated at selected sites. We chose the two best hotspots per eBird, and stayed very near the first one, Al Qurm Nature Park, which lies close to the Gulf of Oman.

indiansilverbill

Indian Silverbill

All of Saturday we spent in the Al Qurm area. There seem to be two parks here – the very manicured Al Qurm Park, which is easy to access, and the far more interesting Al Qurm Nature Park, which seems to have been a nature reserve previously but which is now closed – more or less. We found a way in to this area that involved passing not a single No Trespassing sign or other indicator; this was done by coming from the south. If you try to access from the beach, it is clearly resitricted.

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No Entery!

However, much of the good habitat can be seen from the road which passes to the north. There is a Starbucks on ths road with rooftop seating from which you can see down into both the reserve and the shore on the Gulf. Not a bad place for a midday break.

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Al Qurm Nature Park, as seen from roof of Starbucks

Interesting new birds here included many Grey Francolin, Western Reef Heron, Sooty Gull, Pin-tailed Snipe, White-eared Bulbul, Graceful Prinia, and Indian Silverbill. Plenty of terns were here, such as White-cheeked, Common, Lesser Crested, Sandwich, and Whiskered.

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Temminck’s Stint

Sunday morning we went to Al-Ansab Lagoons. This is a private nature reserve which is located on the properties of Haya Water. As far as I can tell, this is a water treatment facility, but doesn’t resemble anything like sewage ponds. One can only visit here during the work week (fortunately weekends here are Friday and Saturday, so Sunday is doable). Also, one must apply via the web site for Haya / Al-Ansab; the process is simple and we were approved shortly after applying.

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One of the very few shady spots in Al-Ansab

It is free to visit – the company simply wants to control the access. We were met at the lobby by an employee named Marwa. He is also a birder, and he showed us the roads, trails, and blinds, and then left us to wander around on our own. It is easy to cover the area on foot.

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Al-Ansab Lagoons

It is a great location to spend the morning – but it is very hot and you need to bring water, as there is none to be found once you are in. This site has several small lakes and high densities of shorebirds and waterbirds. There are also trails with acacia trees holding copious amounts of Purple Sunbirds (and House Sparrows).

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Indian Pond-heron

Some nice finds at these wetlands included Glossy Ibis, Green Sandpiper, Northern Shoveler, Spectacled Bulbul, Greater Flamingo, Red-tailed Shrike, and Citrine Wagtail. By mid-day we were pretty well cooked, and activity had all but stopped, so  we decided to call it a weekend and head to the airport.

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Green Sandpiper

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Citrine Wagtail

Next weekend: Hong Kong

Week 38: Sept 11 – Sept 17, Bangkok

Working Days: 5

New species identified: 3

Total species to date:  1497

60.0 % of goal, 73.1% of year used

Sites visited: Bang Krachao, Muang Boran Fish Ponds, Queen Sirikit Park

Autumn migrants are moving down through Bangkok now, and we went looking for some. We were able to find both Eastern Crowned Warblers and Amur Paradise-Flycatchers at Bang Krachao, in the area known as the ‘green lung of Bangkok’ – we also picked up a Vinous-breasted Starling, which is a specialty of this site.

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The dreaded vent-shot of an Amur Paradise-Flycatcher

We scoured the other sites for birds such as Forest Wagtail and Black-browed Reed Warbler; the former has been showing up around the city but we couldn’t find one.

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Asian Koel female

That is it for weekends in Bangkok. Lots more travel from here on out. Next weekend: Muscat, Oman

Week 37: Sept 4 – Sept 10, Sabah, Malaysia

Working Days: 4

New species identified: 8

Total species to date:  1494

60.0 % of goal, 71.1% of year used

Sites visited: Sepilok Jungle Resort, Rainforest Discovery Center

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Bushy-crested Hornbill

An early 6:00 flight out of Bangkok on Friday took us to Kuala Lumpur, and from there it is another two and half hours or so to Sandakan, on the east coast of Sabah, Malaysia. Sandakan has a nice little airport and a 20 minute taxi ride (costing $10) gets you to the Sepilok area, home of a number of small resorts and the Sepilok Rainforest Discovery Center. There is alos a Urangutan reserve nearby. From any of the hotels one can easily walk to the various birding sites. We stayed at Sepilok Jungle Resort, which hasa several boardwalks and trails and yielded us a Dark-throated Oriole, Streaked Bulbul, and lots of sunbirds.

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Orange-bellied Flowerpecker

The Rainforest Discovery Center is a modern, well-maintained nature reserve that is perfect for birding. Lots of habitat variety, trails, and an elevated walkway punctuated by observation towers make it a great place to spend a day, which is what we did Saturday. Really, it warrants more than one day. There is a small cafe on the grounds, so you don’t need to leave for lunch.

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Copper-throated Sunird

Unfortunately for us, the bird activity has not very high this weekend. The heat and humidity were quite miserable. You know it is bad when the sunshine at 7:00 is already unbearable.

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Stork-billed Kingfisher

Other than some raucous Yellow-vented Bulbuls, various Tailorbirds, and Blue-Eared Barbets blowing their policeman whistles, the birds were pretty quiet. I’d spent almost two weeks studying downloads from Xeno-Canto but it didn’t help too much. I also took over a hundred recordings that I am still parsing, in hopes of finding something that I missed.

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Wallace’s Hawk-Eagle

Some new birds we did find included Wallace’s Hawk-Eagle, Bushy-Crested Hornbill, Cream-vented and Spectacled Bulbul, and Copper-throated Sunbirds. Dipped on the Rhinoceros Hornbill, all the trogons and the Bristlehead.

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Cream-vented Bulbul

 

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