Where different feathers flock together

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Birds looking for fish at Xuan Thuy National Park in the northern province of Nam Dinh

Grey skies.

It had been raining for a few days and the skies were still cloudy.

Grey skies are not traditionally associated with uplifting beauty, but we were gazing at a scene that rested very easy on the eye.

We were at the Xuan Thuy National Park in Nam Dinh Province. A small road winding along a dyke had taken us there. As we approached, flocks of storks flapped their wings and flew away boisterously when they noticed us.

We had to stop and take photographs and videos. It was around 10 a.m. on an autumn day and we had just driven some 150 kilometers from Hanoi to the park.

I checked my notes. The Xuan Thuy National Park was declared Vietnam's first Ramsar site in 1989 and more than one quarter of the park's 12,000 hectares is covered with mangroves that support some 110 aquatic plant species and 500 species of benthos and zooplankton.

Strange. The listing, for some reason, stirred some hunger pangs. I am always looking forward to local "˜specialties' during such visits, whether they are shrimp, fish, crabs and oysters.

Fish, shrimp and crabs are the main source of income for the local community, I learned.

The park's main attraction, however, are the migratory water birds. This was why we had come during the autumn season, when it is relatively easy to find black-faced spoonbills, particularly at their roosting sites near the shrimp ponds located in the buffer zone around the park.

The park regularly supports large numbers of migratory water-bird species, including the black-tailed godwit, spotted redshank and Eurasian curlew. Many rare species can be found here, including the largest wintertime population of black-faced spoonbill in Vietnam, with around 60 of these rare birds coming here each winter in recent years. Other rare species here include the Saunders's gull, spotted greenshank, spoon-billed sandpiper and Asian dowitcher.

After having a big lunch of large shrimp and giant crabs with a local family who own an aquatic farm here, we asked the staff at the park to guide us and show us how we can get sightings of particular bird species. We discovered, you can take hiking routes or boating routes to the sites of interest, then, walk through the natural and artificial habitats along the dyke system on Con Ngan Island, where the park's headquarters are located. During high tide, you can only get there by boat.


- Xuan Thuy National Park can easily be reached by motorbike or car. From Hanoi, follow Phap Van-Cau Gie Highway or National Highway 1A and then pass Ha Nam Province on National Road No. 21 to Nam Dinh Town. The park is some 60 kilometers from Nam Dinh Town.

- As a wintering site on the East Asian-Australian flyway, the best time to visit Xuan Thuy is from October to April.

- Visitors should bring sleeping bags, mats, raincoats and other necessities for overnight stays. The National Park has a guest house with western toilets but sometimes can be without electricity.

The tide was high when we set off, so Nam An, our guide, took us by boat to reach the offshore mudflats and sandy plains where we saw numerous birds including black-faced spoonbills, gulls, ducks and waders.

"Although October is the best time for bird-watching here, August and September is also good for seeing painted stork, as well as early migrating species such as the black-winged stilt," An said as we sailed slowly through the mangroves.

"In addition to water birds, Xuan Thuy is also an important migratory stopover for non-water birds, with large numbers of passerines and cuckoos passing through the site during the spring and autumn migrations," he continued. "During the summer months, small numbers of painted storks and sot-billed pelicans come here as non-breeding visitors."

An also took us to Con Xanh Island, which supports casuarina groves, an ideal place for the migrating non-water birds. Here we saw a few pitas and other passerines.

"If we have time, we can also take the boat to the offshore mudflats and sandy plains of Giao Xuan Commune, which is the best area for watching the shorebirds," he suggested.

"Here you can find large flocks of waders, especially the spoon-billed sandpiper, Norman's greenshank and many species of gulls including the Saunders's gull, duck species and sometimes the black-faced spoonbill and black-headed ibis."

An spoke with some pride about the park that is home to many important species, and about how it plays an important role in preserving the ecological system and developing eco-tourism in the Red River Delta.

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