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by Wally Van Sickle

It was 5:30 AM in Cat Tien National Park in southern Vietnam. It was dark, and a very starry sky stretched out infinitely above us. Hoachim, a local bird expert and president of a newly formed conservation organization, accompanied us down a dark trail. Before sunrise we arrived at a small stream exactly where we expected the most morning bird activity. We were not disappointed.

Even though it was still quite dark the forest came to life with the most beautiful song. A symphony like no other began to play with more and more species adding their piece moment by moment. We listened motionless until it was light enough to begin focusing our binoculars towards some of the silhouetted shapes that dazzled us with their voices and anticipated color. A red jungle fowl announced his presence with a territorial call almost exactly the same as his domestic cousin – cock-a–doodle-do.

The day continued to unfold with the discovery of each new species. That morning, we came across kingfishers, bulbuls, bee-eaters, hornbills, mynas, orioles, drongos, coucals, barbets, treepies, babblers, shamas, trogons, leaf birds, parrots, and many more. Our bird watching adventure continued into the afternoon as we hiked to a distant natural lake surrounded by tropical forest. Hoachim froze in his tracks at one point when a Germain’s peacock pheasant strutted across our path. He had only seen this bird one other time.

Circling the lake was a large flock of painted storks and an osprey dived frequently for fish. We scanned the banks for the bird I most wanted to see in the wild – the green peafowl (peacock). This spectacular bird is common in the park but we arrived late in the day and it was very hot. We drank tea with the rangers waiting for the peafowl to emerge from the jungle but it was not meant to be.

For the next several weeks as we traveled throughout Vietnam visiting different universities, ecology institutes, and national parks we had several more occasions to bird watch. Before leaving we had seen over 100 new species. Although we thought that number was impressive, while walking a trail in Bach Ma National Park we spoke with a Tennessean couple that had seen over 6600 species and Vietnam was one of their all time favorite places to bird watch.


Since the beginning of IDEA WILD in 1991 we have challenged ourselves and our generous donors to expand the IDEA WILD model into two new countries every year. Recently that expansion has taken us into Southeast Asia including the Philippines, Cambodia and Indonesia. Expansion consists of identifying a new country with very high biodiversity and less than 25% of the habitat left, making contacts within that country, and then actually visiting the country and conducting IDEA WILD presentations at universities and non-profits with conservation interests.

One of our target countries in 2007 was Vietnam but we were lacking a good initial contact. That was about the time one of the best proposals I had ever seen arrived in our mail box from Vu Tien Thinh. He is a Ph.D. candidate working on his degree in conservation biology at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. This was a very fortunate coincidence, as the IDEA WILD home office is also located in Fort Collins. I immediately contacted Thinh.

Thinh and his major professor Dr. Paul Doherty joined me for lunch. Thinh was very professor-like with little round glasses, an extremely intelligent mind, and a quirky sense of humor. He knew everything I needed to know about which universities and non-profits we needed to visit in Vietnam, how to contact them, and all the logistics of traveling from one place to the next. By the time our lunch was finished we had pretty much mapped out the entire one month trip to Vietnam. He would actually be able to join us for the last 10 days. He, like his father, who holds a very high position in the Vietnamese Forestry Department, is very interested in conservation of native forests throughout his country.


Thinh’s research proposal is entitled “Improving Avian Conservation in Northern Vietnam.” Overall, the forest cover in Vietnam is beginning to increase. The government launched several large forest plantation projects and has planted millions of mangroves. However, much of that forest cover increase has been with non-native tree species. Much of the bird diversity in Vietnam is dependent upon native forests – both primary forest that has never been cut and secondary growth that has been cut and is re-growing naturally.

Thinh wants to illustrate that second growth forest holds much higher bird diversity than plantations of introduced eucalyptus, acacia and pine monocultures. Using a recorder and microphone provided by IDEA WILD, Thinh will compare species richness and abundances between natural forest and non-native tree plantations. He will describe how mixed species bird flocks are affected by disturbance and how roads affect bird movements in national parks.

Diseases such as avian influenza, West Nile virus, and Newcastle disease will also be compared between birds found in the natural forests and those found in human dominated landscapes. Overall he hopes his research will affect reforestation efforts and convince officials that second growth is a viable alternative to non-native forest plantations – good for birds and good for the country.

Project Cost: $1524