Posted on November 9, 2021 in John's Current Blog

Great Pied Hornbill

Phnom Penh; November 9, 20201:  There are 536 species of birds in Cambodia, but you would never know it here in Phnom Penh. When we first moved into our house on the Bassac River, which branches off from the Mekong in the middle of town, there was a wetlands area of tall reeds and grasses along the western bank that abuts our neighborhood. I occasionally saw terns and gulls, but no wading birds. The Khmer people are gentle and kind, but they are also mostly poor. 85% of the protein in their diet comes from the freshwater fish of the Mekong Delta. The first long-legged bird that I saw in Cambodia was a rail or a heron of some kind, defeathered and for sale at one of the wet markets in town. It’s illegal to take wading birds in most of the world, but these people do what they can to get by. As a child, I used to hunt for quail. I was never a good shot, but quail travel in coveys of a dozen or more birds, so when it’s flushed, it’s not that hard to hit one. I remember my father tying flies for fishing with the thumb-sized, tiger-like feathers of a quail. He also garnished one of his hats with them.

Growing up, I wasn’t keenly attuned to birds, though we lived not half a mile from one of the largest virgin cypress swamps in the world. Our yard had neither trees nor bird feeders. There were hollies and camellias that flanked the front stoop where an occasional cardinal or robin would nest, but there was no hardwood stand to attract warblers, no mice to feed raptors. Down by the river, there were egrets and woodpeckers and kingfishers, but I went to the river to swim, not to look at birds. We saw gators and bears and water moccasins, and an occasional mink or otter, but I just don’t remember the birds.

My father had always been a duck hunter but for some reason he never took me. I did hunt quail, rabbits, and squirrels for a couple of years, but he and I lost interest in hunting when he bought his first big boat. Moored off Hilton Head long before it was overdeveloped, we frequently saw snipe and rails amongst the marsh grass, herons and oystercatchers along the banks of the estuaries, gulls and sandpipers on the beachfront, and ospreys who would take their prey a few feet from the boat. I was always surprised at the size of the drum and seatrout that they would catch when my perpetual trolling and trot lines rarely yielded anything worth keeping. My mother kept a strict ship’s journal in which she logged every dolphin, turtle, and eagle she saw (because of DDT, eagles were nearly extinct in the sixties and seventies), but neither of us were serious birdwatchers.

I became an avid – though still not serious (I don’t keep a “Life List”) – birder when I finished grad school at the University of Georgia and was given a two-year grant to be the staff artist at the newly opened Sandy Creek Nature Center just outside Athens. Then funded by the Northeast Georgia Nature Conservancy, the Clarke County School District, and the University, the 225-acre nature reserve at the confluence of two rivers features a beaver pond and a variety of habitats that provide haven for hundreds of species of flora and fauna. I got to help lay out nature trails. I had primary and high school teachers asking me for natural treasury boxes to teach their students zoology, botany, and geology. College professors needed detailed drawings of cell biology. And at the interpretive center, we tried to catalog and document every living creature – from fungus to harrier – that thrived on the property.

Bird watching in Florida with Kate, 2018

Nearly three hundred bird species are found in Clarke County. I bought my first pair of compact birding binoculars (which I still have). They don’t have the wide field of view that the more powerful and clunkier models we had on ship, but they were a revelation for me in the woods of Northeast Georgia, where colorful warblers, orioles, finches, and grosbeaks abound. I set up a windowsill feeder in town and came to disparage the usurpers like starlings and house finches. Athens was the epicenter of new wave rock music at the time, and my singer friends Dana Downs (the Tone-Tones, among others) and Kate Pierson (the B-52s) and I bonded at least partially while bird watching. Later, when we both lived in New York, Kate and I used to go birding in Central Park. Once, hiking a trail outside the city, she taught me to stand scarecrow-like, with arms extended, as she called the chickadees with a pishing sound. It was one of the most magical moments of my life, as the birds came and landed on our arms.

When the arts grant ended, I moved to the Virgin Islands. I lived in Charlotte Amalie, the capital city, not far up Frenchman Hill, overlooking the harbor. My patio was planted in bougainvillea which were frequented by colorful bananaquits and a half dozen varieties of hummingbirds. Overhead, magnificent frigate birds, with their red balloon-like gular sacs, soared, and doves and pigeons pecked around on the concrete. But I missed even the backyard birds of the States. When I returned to Charleston, South Carolina, I nearly broke into tears when a cardinal flew across my sister Nancy’s piazza, as they call the verandahs in that old American city. I dove back into birding with a passion, trying to learn the confusing shorebirds on the beaches, the warblers of the woods, and the myriad waders of the salt marshes and freshwater swamps. Even after the jewel like iridescence of the island hummingbirds, I was enthralled with the range of colors of the birds that I had grown up around and never seemed to notice – the outrageousness of the painted bunting, the radiance of the glossy ibis, and the pink shock of the occasional flamingo or spoonbill. Peregrine falcons had been declared endangered in 1970; DDT was banned in 1972; and eagles had been declared endangered in 1978. Both birds had already begun a comeback.

Cedar Waxwing in Savannah, Georgia, 2017

By the time I moved to Europe a couple of years later, I was familiar with many of the nearly 500 birds that live in South Carolina, but I never kept a list. I have always watched birds for the sound and colors, their distinctly different behaviors, and the simple thrill of seeing them. My college friend Adrianne, a biologist, and I sat and watched cedar waxwings through the windows of her trailer that was surrounded by pyracantha shrubs. The birds passed the berries, some of which were fermented, to each other and ate their fill until they began passing out on the ground, drunk as college students on 25-cent beers. I noted that the birds looked like Liz Taylor in her Cleopatra makeup. Adrianne called blue jays “birds in baseball uniforms.” I wasn’t expecting to become too familiar with birds in Paris, but my first sight of a Hoopoe in the Bois de Boulogne threw me. I was sure the bird was an escaped exotic tropical, with its striking zebra-like wings, its long decurved bill, and its peculiar crest of feathers that rises dramatically like a Mohawk atop its head. It was an unusually sunny day in Paris, and I immediately walked the 4 miles to Shakespeare and Company to buy an English-language field guide to the birds of Europe.

That was 40 years ago, and I have since lived in Italy, back in the Lowcountry, in Washington DC, in Bulgaria, China, and, now, in Cambodia. I rarely see birds in town now that they have cleared the wetland area behind our house and trimmed the branches of the tree across the street where the noisy, but delightful Coppersmith Barbet has nested for the past three years. When we first moved in the house, State Department rules demanded there be nine-foot-tall opaque fences topped with razor wire. I planted the very aggressive evergreen Thunbergia grandiflora vine, hoping it would soon cover the wire but also thrilled to have its beautiful purple trumpet-shaped flowers. Within a month the vine had covered the concertina and the flowers were attracting fantails, magpie-robins, and bulbuls. Once, I saw the diminutive scarlet-backed flowerpecker, and I have seen the colorful ruby-cheeked sunbird as well, the young all yellow underneath and the male sporting royal blue, orange, yellow, and red. The first bird I saw in the vine was a tailorbird with a rufous crest, but there are seven such species here and I have no idea which one it was. I never saw it again.

Coppersmith Barbet, Phnom Penh

We went glamping at Four Rivers resort – floating tents on the Tatai River in the west of the country at the base of the Cardamom Mountains. I was hoping to see birds. On the 5-hour drive there, I constantly looked out the window, scouring every treetop, puddle, bare branch, river, pond – any body of water, for a sign of birds. I saw 2 egrets/herons and a handful of swifts/swallows [which I later found out are raised for their edible nests]. One day I spent hours on a boat on the river, and I saw one rail/heron/bittern, 2 or 3 egrets, one kingfisher, a crow, several tiny flitty black (dark) things – sunbirds? – and three bee eaters picking insects off the surface of the water up a tiny creek headed by a small, mostly dry waterfall. That night I saw drongos catching insects in flight and the following evening, the ubiquitous mynahs.But where were the other shore birds, the cormorants, the raptors, the pelicans? It’s downright bizarre.

Orange-breasted Green Pigeons on Koh Rong, Cambodia


The next morning I took a sunrise boat ride with guides up a creek birdwatching for 2 hours. We saw lots of pigeons – the wild ones—and egrets. Drongos. A parrot. Night herons. Lots of kingfishers! A hornbill. Also a couple of other birds I unsuccessfully tried to identify when I downloaded the photos – which weren’t good because we were in a small boat and I was using a point-and-shoot camera. When I returned to the resort, Robbie, the manager said that he had heard and seen either an osprey or a sea eagle, which I continued to look for the rest of the long weekend. Our final night we went to see the sunset after kayaking through mangroves, where the only wildlife we saw was one squirrel. At least returning to the resort we got to see the Saturn/Jupiter conjunction – the  closest they have appeared together since 1226 AD – 800 years ago – the time of Genghis Khan. Another bird I have yet to ID was a small warbler-like bird, gray above, light below, one wing band. My journal lists these postitive IDs: Rose-breasted Parakeet (aka Red-Breasted), Mountain Imperial Pigeon, Oriental Pied Hornbill, Black Drongo, Ashy Drongo, Night Heron, Great Egret, Little Heron, Stork-Billed Kingfisher, Black-Capped Kingfisher, and a large bee eater, possibly the Blue Beard. Just prior to our final lunch, a pair of raptors – Robbie said eagles – soared overhead. I think they were Honey Buzzards.

Immature Wreathed Hornbill, Phnom Penh

The hornbills are big – 3 feet long with a wingspan of nearly 6 feet. They are so unusual looking with their huge decurved bills topped with colorful casques. Flocks of them occasionally appear in town when certain trees are fruiting. A few weeks ago a friend of mine was walking home from the gym at the nearby Sofitel hotel, just a few blocks away, and posted a photo of a mature male Great Hornbill on Instagram. The hotel has large grounds with many mature trees, including giant figs, whose fruits are favored by these normally forest-dwelling creatures. I grabbed my camera and cell phone and walked over to be entertained by a carnivalesque show as three species of the big birds feasted on the fruits for several hours. It was one of my favorite days of birding.

There are another 500 species of birds in Cambodia, if one is to believe the experts, but I think that most of them are in the  inaccessible jungles bordering Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. I no longer have wanderlust; I have no bucket list. But any time I travel to new places, I carry both my old compact and my newer, more highly powerful binoculars with me. If I see some amazing bird, I end up buying a field guide. I have them for North America, Central America, the Caribbean, Hawai’i, Europe, Britain, Morocco, Sri Lanka, East Asia, and South-East Asia. When I gave away my library, I kept my bird and gardening books. They give me endless pleasure, even when I’m stuck at home in a cast, the way I am now.