Monday, February 27, 2012

Burma Birding: 22nd-26th Feb

Amalee and I decided to take a five-day holiday to Burma last week.  We flew to Rangoon, had a day there, then flew to Bagan next morning for three days of exploring the amazing landscape that is punctuated with 2,200 temples that were part of a great city that dates back 1,500 years. Then a final day in Rangoon before returning to Bangkok.

This was our first trip to Burma, and it was full of interesting quirks to keep us entertained - eg the total absence of motorbikes on the streets on Rangoon (they are banned, following a period of gang warfare in the1980s!) and the fact that they drive on the right hand side of the road in Burma, but they have right hand drive cars.  Best of all though are the open displays of support for Aung San Suu Kyi: thwarted winner of the 1990 general election, long-time political prisoner, Nobel Peace Prize winner and now candidate for local elections.

Talking with a friend who has been resident in Rangoon for the last 18 months, it is clear that the  many positive changes coming to Burma in terms of political reform are reflected in  increasing numbers of tourists going to Burma (there is a major shortage of hotel rooms). What is driving these reforms is a good question that seems hard to answer, and they are cautiously welcomed (let's hope they continue).

Bagan has become known as a very good area for birding, and whilst this was not a birding-orientated trip, it would have been rude to not have taken my binos!  I manage to pick up a few of the target birds including White-throated Babbler and Burmese Bushlark (both endemics which were seen every day whilst looking at temples), burmannicus Vinous-breasted Starling and White-eyed Buzzard (one over the temple we were stood on whilst watching the sunset).  Other goodies included Small Pratincole, Ruddy Shelduck and Grey-throated Martin (all seen distantly from the banks of the Irrawaddy River), Yellow-streaked Warbler (easily picked up on call, and seemingly pretty common), Burmese Shrike (common), a Eurasian Wryneck and nice views of Oriental Honey Buzzard and Spotted Owlet. The key target species – Jerdon’s Minivet, Hooded Treepie - and Laggar Falcon eluded me, but they would realistically have required more time and attention than I could give them on this trip (and I had already used up all my luck in Rangoon’s domestic terminal - see below).

I left Burma  wanting more time to explore – it has huge birding potential, and if it continues to “open up” it will surely become a popular destination for birdwatchers (the people we met were fantastically friendly, the level of spoken English is way beyond that which you find in Thailand, and the country is regarded as being very safe for travellers).

Who knows what avian delights might be hiding there?  My outrageous hope are White-eyed River Martin, Pink-headed Duck, and a wintering population of Large-billed Reed Warblers!

"Auntie Suu"
Whilst sitting at Rangoon's domestic terminal waiting for our delayed flight to Bagan there was suddenly a spontaneous cheering and clapping and everybody was standing up - I guessed who might be in the building, but as I turned around I was astonished and overjoyed to see Daw Aung San Suu Kyi walk past us just five feet away! She then went into the airport lounge for a meeting.

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