In the run up to Khmer New Year I was asked to go to Prek Toal, a protected bird sanctuary on the Tonle Sap Lake. It was a fun trip and it was especially interesting to go there at the height of the dry season. It’s quite a journey from Phnom Penh as you have to go via Siem Reap. Then it’s an hour boat ride to the floating village of Prek Toal… or possibly a lot longer if your boats draft is not shallow enough.
I should be used to the lake by now, but it still blows my mind that people are just walking around out in the middle, often little more than ankle deep.
The reason for the trip was the recent closure of some fishing lots inside the protected area. Initially the locals had descended on the newly opened rivers in there hundreds. The Wildlife Conservation Society, who have been working in Prek Toal since the turn of the millennium, quickly moved to stop this by placing guards on the entrances to the rivers, 24/7.
The result was an influx of birds onto these rivers, which they have not been able to access previously. Visal, the project manager came back with some incredible shots of huge flock of birds and so it was decided it was worth my trying to get some new shots and some nice shinny new HD footage, to replace my now very old stock from the lake.
We arrived in the dark, washed, ate, slept and left again at 4:30am. One of the joys of working with WCS staff is they are always eager to get into the field. No frustratingly slow starts to the day. Far too often I have found myself watching the best light of the day disappear, while I wait for people to drag themselves out of their beds or away from their breakfast.
We put in 14 hours on day one. Day 2 was taken at a slightly more sedate pace with a late start. which was due to having to wait for the boat to travel to Siem Reap and back. You can’t really travel across the lake at night as it’s simply too easy to get lost, as you try to weave your way through the various fishing traps. If you do break down the consequences can be very serious if a storm starts brewing. For those who have not experienced strong winds and large waves on the lake, it’s not fun and can be every bit as dangerous as being at sea.
Reports from the rangers were not promising.
Once the boat returned we decided to our luck on some other rivers, as while we saw some large groups of various species the previous day, it was not the great ‘spectacular’ we had hoped for. We had lunch with the rangers guarding the rivers entrance before setting off… at a crawl. The lake is so low at this time of year even the smallest of boats ground to a halt every so often. Getting into the river proved a challenge, which involved a lot of pushing and shoving as well as judicious use of the throttle.
God those engines are deafening!
Once the river widened out we headed a few km’s upriver before we could go no further. While we didn’t see the masses of birds we had hoped for the river was still teaming with birds. Darters, Storks, Herons, Pelicans and both species of Adjutants were around every corner. We saw numerous fish eagles, several carrying large fish off to the safety of a perch. One was so close I struggled to get the lens to focus. I was puzzled as to why it hadn’t simply taken off when it heard us coming, before realizing it was struggling to hold onto a huge Snake Head (it’s a popular local fish, very tasty) as it attempted to take off. He made it, but not before we drifted by, almost within reach of the determined raptor.
Visal and the driver caught a glimpse of a family of Hairy nosed Otters as they bolted into the undergrowth. Sadly by the time I turned to look they’d gone. That would have been special indeed but no such luck. Anyway I had to make do with some quite nice stills and a load of HD footage. It was well worth the trip.
Oh, and the fishing is great! One of the rangers caught us lunch. He threw a cast net in 3 times and pulled out 4 huge Snakeheads. I can see why it’s popular with the birds.