Xuan Thuy - where the birds return   (16:22 | 07-05-2024)

In March, the rice flowers bloom in vibrant red, standing out like sparks against the gray skies of the northern coastal region. This marks the end of the season when birds return to seek refuge from the cold at Xuan Thuy National Park.

Birds typically return to the park from November of the previous year to April of the following year. This timeframe coincides with cold weather in the north, while the park's low latitude provides warm weather and abundant food. Covering an area of over 15,000 hectares, Xuan Thuy is currently home to 222 bird species, predominantly waterfowl, with over 100 of them being migratory species.

Distinguished by its marshes and wetlands near the seaport, Xuan Thuy National Park stands out with its lagoons and sand dunes interspersed with patches of tiger and parrot trees, creating alternating green and gray landscapes. This is what is referred to as the "bird sanctuary," where tens of thousands of birds still flock to reside every winter.

Standing amidst the bird sanctuary, Le Tien Dung peered through his super-long-focus binoculars, which he fondly called "telescopes," to observe the rare flock of spoon-billed storks that had just descended from the sky onto the surface of the dried-up lagoon bed.

Having been with the park since its inception in 2003, transitioning from a ranger to a conservation specialist, Mr. Dung currently works in the park's Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation Department. He has a special affection and profound understanding of the avian inhabitants here.

"It's nearing the end of the season now, but I assure you, if you follow me to the bird sanctuary, you won't leave empty-handed," Mr. Dung had assured the working group, who had arrived at the Management Board headquarters earlier to learn and document the conservation efforts for migratory birds.

Placing the binoculars securely in the middle of the motorcycle, the conservation officer started the engine, with another guest from the working group seated behind him, and headed straight towards the sea, where tens of thousands of birds were feeding.

As he narrated, birds choose Xuan Thuy as a resting place during their migration southward due to its pristine environment and, notably, its abundant food sources.

"The brackish water and swamp fauna here are exceptionally unique and serve as a diverse food source for migratory birds. Moreover, winter is the time when aquaculture ponds in the area are drained, providing a renewed food supply that birds relish," Mr. Dung explained while navigating through Xuan Thuy.

In this bird sanctuary, when a shallow lagoon forms, flocks of birds converge there to forage together. Each species has its own role – some scour the water, while others catch shrimp and fish – living in symbiosis, rarely competing or fighting for food.

Upon passing through the black tiger forests, Mr. Dung abruptly applied the brakes on the motorcycle and swiftly turned off the engine. Yet the flock of birds was startled, with hundreds scattering from the ground, transforming the entire green mangrove forest into a white spectacle.

Starting from the end of the Red River dyke near Ba Lat gate, proceed downward, past the Casuarina range, which serves as the headquarters of the Xuan Thuy National Park Management Board. Adorning the entrance of the headquarters is the emblem of the park, featuring a prominent spoon-billed stork with a red body and black head.

Notably, the spoon-billed stork (scientific name: Platalea minor) is an endemic bird species to East Asia, classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List as well as in the Vietnam Red Book.

According to Mr. Pham Vu Anh, Deputy Director of Xuan Thuy National Park, spoon-billed storks are emblematic birds of wetlands. Specifically, within Xuan Thuy, this rare bird is an indicator of biodiversity and the park's ecological conservation achievements.

"If the environment lacks cleanliness, food scarcity prevails, and ecological diversity is absent, the spoonbill would never choose it as a stopping point. Therefore, the storks are crucial indicators of conservation efforts," further analyzed Mr. Pham Vu Anh.

Approximately 1 km from the headquarters, amidst the bird sanctuary, Le Tien Dung squints his eyes, scanning the distance to discern which yard the spoonbills will choose as their feeding ground today. As the late afternoon sets in, sporadically, flocks of storks are seen descending onto the bushes and parrot trees, seeking a place to rest and preparing for sleep, yet the spoonbills are nowhere to be found.

Concerned that the working group might have missed their encounter with the park's "mascot," Mr. Dung suddenly gestures towards the sea and exclaims loudly, "There are spoonbills, a flock of them!" Gazing in the direction indicated by the national park officer's hand against the gray sky, more than a dozen spoon-billed storks emerge, flying one after another in an arrow-like formation toward the mainland.

"This species rarely flies alone; it's uncommon to see them flying solo, most often they fly in groups," he explains. While his hand is almost finished setting up the super-long-focus binoculars, he predicts which yard the flock of birds will land on as they continue their flight.

In the sky, the birds' wings continue to flap as they soar, their bodies adorned with white feathers contrasting against their jet-black legs and beaks. A distinctive feature of Platalea minor is its spoon-shaped beak, a specialized tool aiding them in foraging. This unique beak assists them in probing the water, flushing out fish and shrimp from their hiding places, and providing sustenance for the storks.

Skillfully positioning the binoculars between two mangrove trees, Mr. Dung instructed the guests on how to observe a flock of spoon-billed storks that had just landed on a muddy beach nearly 100 meters away. "Adjust the knob above, and when the movement stops, you'll see the spoon-billed storks clearly as they search for food," softly advised the man with over 20 years of experience in Xuan Thuy National Park.

Indeed, after some adjustments to focus, the birds listed in the Vietnam Red Book became distinctly visible, allowing observers to witness their every movement as if they were right before them. At some point, Mr. Dung counted 23 individuals in this gathering, suspecting the remainder were nearby.

Having amassed decades of experience in bird counting at Xuan Thuy, Mr. Dung noted that the 2023-2024 bird migration season witnessed the most significant number of spoon-billed storks visiting the park, totaling 103 individuals.

Spoon-billed storks, originating from North Korea and Russia, often migrate here to evade the cold until the end of April before heading back north. Wherever spoon-billed storks are found, there exists an abundant food source, highlighting the increasingly suitable environment for this rare bird species in Xuan Thuy National Park.

During their winter migration to Vietnam, spoon-billed storks forage on coastal tidal flats within estuaries, feeding on fish and other small aquatic creatures. Globally, this species is found in Russia, North Korea, southern Japan, and along the East China Sea, with the current global population is just over 5,000 individuals.

In addition to spoon-billed storks, Xuan Thuy National Park serves as a congregation and resting spot for numerous common waterbird species migrating during the winter. Along their thousands of miles migration route, many bird and stork species choose this locale to refuel on food and gather energy for the upcoming breeding seasons.

Xuan Thuy National Park boasts a diverse avian population thriving within its wetland ecosystem. Utilizing field surveys and building upon previous research endeavors focused on avifauna within Xuan Thuy, a total of 222 bird species spanning 42 families across 12 orders have been identified. Among these, 90 species were documented during surveys conducted in December 2012 and July 2013.

The composition of bird species within Xuan Thuy National Park exhibits seasonal variability. During the winter and spring months, spanning from October of the previous year to March of the subsequent year, the park serves as a migratory hub for birds journeying from the north. This period facilitates observations of both migratory and resident bird species. Conversely, during the summer and autumn months, from April to September annually, only resident bird species are typically observed. Of the 222 bird species documented in Xuan Thuy National Park, 166 are migratory (comprising 75.45% of the total species count), 51 are resident (23.18%), and 3 are vagrant species (1.36%).

The abundance of bird species within Xuan Thuy National Park is assessed using qualitative methods and categorized into three levels: common, uncommon, and rare. Among the documented species, 108 are classified as common (49.09% of the total), 89 as uncommon (40.45%), and 23 as rare (10.45%).

Within Xuan Thuy National Park, the conservation focus is particularly directed towards safeguarding precious and rare bird species, with particular emphasis on migratory waterbirds. Notably, two primary migration routes, spanning the north-south and vice versa axes, contribute to the park's biodiversity. During the winter, birds migrate southward to escape the cold, while in the summer and autumn, species migrate northward to avoid the heat. Iconic species such as the Sarus Crane and Asian Openbill from southern Vietnam and Cambodia seek refuge within the National Park's confines to mitigate the climatic extremes during their annual migratory cycles.

Consequently, Xuan Thuy National Park is recognized as a significant "international bird sanctuary," serving as a critical habitat for numerous precious and rare bird species, particularly those of the waterbird variety.

Tung Dinh - Bao Thang - Pham Huy
Truong Khanh Thien
Tung Dinh

Translated by Quynh Chi


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