My work over the past 2 weeks has been to shoot some new footage of Giant Ibises nesting for a film I am making on this enigmatic bird. One of the world’s rarest birds, the Giant Ibis number just a few hundred, all of which reside in the open forests of northern and eastern Cambodia. This once widespread landscape has all but disappeared from S.E. Asia over the past few decades, with most being turned into rice fields. For birds such as the Giant Ibis and its almost equally rare cousin the White shouldered Ibis, this has been devastating.
When I came to Cambodia in 2001 I took the first photo of a Giant Ibis in almost 50 years. In fact the species was thought to be extinct for many years and was only rediscovered when Cambodia’s decades of warfare finally came to an end in the late 1990’s. Two years later I went to Preah Vihear province in an effort to film these enigmatic birds nesting. Not an easy prospect due to the fact that they nest at the height of the rainy season. That was an ultimately successful, but exceedingly wet trip. Sadly the footage I took back then is no longer good enough for broadcast, being in the old SD format, so I jumped at the opportunity to film them again in glorious HD… despite knowing just how unpleasant it was likely to be. Wet season in the forest is never much fun.
This expedition took me to Siem Pang in north-east Cambodia, where Birdlife International have a project protecting some of this now rare landscape and its many rare inhabitants. I spent the first few days visiting various locations; a vulture restaurant, where we watched around 50 vultures tear apart the carcass of a cow in a single morning; a roosting site where we saw approximately 20% of the worlds population of White shouldered Ibis (estimated at 1,000 globally) along with several Lesser Adjutants and even a couple of Giants; and then finally a Giant Ibis nest.
We were lucky with the weather up until this point, it hadn’t rained in a couple of weeks and the tracks were mostly dry, as was the forest around the nest. Just a few meters from where I decided to build the hide was a small stream, which was just a trickle when I arrived there the next day with my assistant, a local Birdlife employee, Porn. With the rain starting to fall we prepared everything a couple of hundred meters away, so we could get in and out as quickly as possible as I was desperate not to disturb the birds too much. By the time we reached the hide site it was, shall we say, persistently coming down and to add to the fun lightning was now directly overhead and struck a tree not far from us. We moved as fast as we could but neither of us noticed the stream behind us. As we applied the finishing touches with more strikes hitting trees nearby, we suddenly realized the once small stream was now a torrent neck deep and 3-4 meters across. Porn suggested swimming, as a former lifeguard I wasn’t having any of that. There were numerous trees that had fallen into the river and I was very concerned of getting pinned under one. We searched along the bank and found a partially submerged tree that would get us across; thankfully we only had our kambat’s (local machete) with us and not my 20kg camera bag. It was still a slippery task but we made it without incident. We then returned to the ranger station, some 7 or 8km away, to dry out and prepare for the 4am trip to the nest the next day… weather permitting.
I feel the need to mention a very minor accident I had the evening before we built the hide. While going up some stairs I scrapped a tiny bit of skin off one of my toes, it barely drew blood. Normally you wouldn’t give it a second thought. But, when you are going to be walking in wet boots 8 hours a day for the next couple of weeks something this innocuous can turn very nasty. I just knew this was going to be trouble.
The return trip at 4am was enlightening. I hadn’t realized just how much water was going to drain into the tracks that we had to ride along and it made for a painfully slow journey. What had taken 20 minutes the previous day now took almost an hour, with large parts knee to thigh-deep in water. I finally called an end to the struggle with the bike and told Porn I would walk the remaining 2km or so, rather than expend more energy dragging the bike out of increasingly large potholes. I have to hand it to Honda, those little 100cc bikes are incredibly robust, although Porn’s example was currently lacking any form of brakes.
Obviously it was still pitch black, so when it came to finding the last turn to cross the stream I did struggle a little. When I eventually found it, it had dropped to a more reasonable thigh level. As I began to set up my equipment I heard the male Ibis making his early morning wake up call at around 5am. The male roosts elsewhere for the night, while the female remains with the chicks. With me not visible but making a fair bit of noise the female didn’t return his call.
It was a disappointing start to filming as it was very overcast and the sun didn’t make an appearance until gone 10am, so most of what I took was not really worth using. Never the less it was interesting to watch. This pair spent a lot of time repairing the nest compared to the two nests I have watched previously. I got the impression it was as much educational for the chicks as it was of structural importance. These chicks were also much older than the others I’d seen and I guessed it would be about 2 weeks before they would fully fledge. With the morning light gone I left the hide shortly before 11am to walk back to meet Porn and spent the afternoon getting some landscape shots around the ranger station I was staying at.
That evening we had a lot of heavy rain and it was still fairly strong when I awoke at 3:45am. Bollocks! There was no chance of safely getting across that stream, so I went back to my hammock. I awoke later to see a dozen or more vultures and adjutants circling close to the station and got out my camera. Porn and a couple of rangers shot off on their bikes to check it out. They returned half an hour later and said they’d seen 24 birds in all but there was no carcass, “the birds were washing in a river”. It sounded odd to me but I took their word for it. In the mid afternoon I wondered out to see what I could shoot and almost immediately flushed 3 or 4 vultures from trees close to the station. As I walked a little further more took flight and then I heard the distinctive shrieks and whistles of squabbling vultures; there must be a carcass. I headed off the track and continued to more spook birds. With so many birds in every direction it was impossible to get close without being seen and after only a few minutes I found the carcass of a dead cow when I put about 25 birds to flight. Because the grasses and plants are so tall at this time of year you can’t see much on the ground until you’re really close. Even then three vultures were still feeding when I finally got a sight of the carcass from only 3 or 4 meters away. I reckon they got the fright of the lives when my ugly mug appeared over the top of the grass. Sadly, just skin and the larger bones remained so there was little point in putting up a hide. In all I saw something like 40-45 vultures and around 12-15 adjutants and I got some decent footage of both species in flight.
The following morning I had a new assistant, Sol. This guy can ride a bike, I was very impressed, he clearly knew where all the really nasty potholes were and we sailed through to where we had stopped previously. He probably could have gone further but I knew how bad it was getting and Sol wasn’t complaining. It was another dull morning and the sun struggled to make an appearance at 9am. I was really struggling with the cameras steaming up. Normally it may do it once and then it’s fine. Not here, it was so wet I had to wipe the lens on my 500mm every 10 or 15 minutes until almost 8am. My lens cloth became damp in no time and was useless so I was forced to resort to toilet paper. The little camera I was using for the wide shots had problems too and I was quite worried when it steamed up on the inside of the lens, however after half an hour it would clear and was fine. Again, I got nothing that great, but at least I had some usable sequences. The return journey was uneventful thanks to Sol and after putting my boots out in the sun to become less wet, I wondered about shooting some macro stuff, flowers and ants for the most part.
Day 4 shooting the nest went the way of day 2. Overnight storms put paid to getting across the stream so we slept a little later. It was nice to be staying at the station. Apart from the added protection from horizontal rain and electrical storms they have a generator, so I can go crazy with my batteries and shot almost constantly every morning. I can also do much of the transferring and basic cutting on my laptop. But, most importantly of all, the cook is great.
Day five and I had yet another driver, Mai. It was quite wet and the stream was back up to balls deep. Another slow steamy start to the day but the sun did come up for a while at 8am, so I got some quite nice footage and I should have a really top notch audio recording of the female returning the males first call. Unfortunately the return journey didn’t go to plan. Mai wasn’t where he was supposed to be and I had left my water at the hide. It was starting to look stormy so I decided to start walking as I thought maybe we’d miss communicated and he wasn’t coming. I was only a little over a kilometer away from the station when he finally turned up. He’d apparently had lunch and lost track of time. I was a little annoyed having spent 2 hours stumbling through around 7km of mud and water carrying a 20kg box and a 5kg tripod. I was knackered.
Day 6 almost predictably went the way of days 2 and 4. Although it had been wet all night I think I might have been able to get across the stream, but my toe was starting to play up and I decided it might be wiser to spend the day keeping it dry. I pottered about shooting several long cloud sequences to speed up later. It was a lovely day and so hot; my boots were almost damp by the end of the day.
Day 7 saw another driver. We had had a dry night and most of the previous day so I was hopeful for a bright morning. Although I didn’t get the sunrise I wanted the sun did appear by 7am giving me some lovely footage over the next few hours. Having got some good footage I decided around 9am to try my luck with some stills. Bad idea. The Ibis adult reacted immediately to my camera shutter noise as I clicked off a few shots. It flew into a tree directly above me to check out the noise. After that I had to wait about 20 minutes before it returned to the nest. Shortly after that I could hear someone hammering away at something at the nearby trapeang (pond), which is about 100m or so from the nest. When the other adult returned with food it flew over several times before finally landing near the nest. I shot through to almost 11am but the birds were clearly nervous with the hammering continuing.
We returned to the station for lunch and over the course of the afternoon I started to feel bit rough. By dinner time I was not feeling good at all and only managed a little to eat. Within minutes I had a raging fever, I was shaking violently and felt terrible. I have had malaria before and with 5 of the rangers catching it over the past month it was quite possible that was what I had. I foolishly forgot to bring any medicine and there was none at the station, so I had to wait until the following morning to get to town and see a pharmacist. When I awoke the fever had dropped but I felt dreadful and to make matters worse my toe was now starting to look really swollen and it was hard to get my boot on. I figured there was little point in continuing and cut the trip short. As I was going to try to get to Phnom Penh that day, we left early for Siem Pang town and quickly grabbed some medicine. I didn’t want to wait until the capital as the pharmacies would probably be shut and I could be in real trouble. The Birdlife guys stuck me in a minibus bound for Stung Treng and thankfully it was a very easy change over in Stung Treng.
It’s not a fun journey as the roads between Siem Pang and Stung Treng have been utterly destroyed by logging trucks and most of the Siem Pang road is a quagmire. Another issue is the huge amount of people transporting wood. I counted 18 of the mechanical mules all hauling 3 or 4 large logs; dozens of motos with smaller bits of wood; big trucks and small trucks. It was simply everywhere I went between Siem Pang, until well past Kratie. Very depressing, I am seeing this same scene everywhere I go in Cambodia and it appears even the smallest Rosewood and Beng trees are being cut now. Incidentally, both the mini busses I traveled in had several rosewood planks hidden under the seats. After a long day I arrived home in Phnom Penh at gone 8pm and just decided to get some sleep and deal with my now very messy looking toe in the morning.
It was disappointing to have to cut the trip short, but I did get what I needed and as I wasn’t going to be able to stay long enough to see the chicks fledge anyway. Basically, I didn’t miss anything. I have decided to return to Siem Pang in a few months to try my luck at a few trapengs. The Birdlife site is quite remarkable with, not just large numbers (relatively) of both species of Ibis and the three vultures, but also a population of the incredibly rare Eld’s deer. I really am looking forward to returning, but I will definitely be taking my own motorbike next time… and some malaria medicine.