On the Search for the White-winged Duck – Re-opening Okoki to Birders
Deep in the remote dry forests of the Northern Plains of Cambodia, near the Lao border, lies the now legendary birding site of Okoki in the Chhep Wildlife Sanctuary. The Okoki River is one of the few sites left in Cambodia to find the endangered and elusive White-winged Duck. Okoki creates an evergreen riparian corridor that winds through beautiful dry, deciduous forest. Gibbons and elephants still can be found along the river. Having two forest ecosystems to explore affords abundant opportunities to spot a wide variety of birdlife.
In 2007 an exploratory expedition by WCS discovered this hard-to-find species at two pools (trapeangs) near the Okoki River, and realizing the potential for birders, worked with SVC to develop a safari tented camp on the river bank, drawing birders from all over the world to spot this notoriously hard to find bird.
In 2013 with some political instability in the area the decision was made to close the camp; however recently the area has firmly been declared secure for tourism. In May this year SVC took our intrepid team of Senior Guides, Juniors and Trainees alongside Birding Training Advisor, Howie Nielsen, to explore and survey Okoki, hoping to re-open the site for 2017. The survey trip doubled as a training mission, working on skills development for the Junior team – a key part of SVC’s focus in the low season months and introducing them to their news ‘tools of the trade:’ Swarovski Optik scopes and binoculars!
The mission was a great success – not only producing some great sightings of the target species itself – but some remarkable firsts for the area and for the team, which Senior Guide Mony’s superior digiscoping skills managed to catch on camera, including Grey-headed Parakeet, Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher, Puff-throated Babbler, Black-headed Woodpecker. Howie is pretty sure he also heard some elephants wandering near his hammock in the night – though the team remain convinced that this was in fact the ghosts of the area.
The evergreen corridor also provides shelter for Siamese Fireback, Banded Kingfisher, hornbills, broadbills, trogons and babblers. Both Bay Owl and Blyth’s Frogmouth have been recorded. The pools attract storks and even the occasional Giant Ibis. The open deciduous forest has White-rumped Falcon, along with the guild of deciduous dipertocarp forest (DDF) specialists. Okoki has 15 species of woodpeckers.
So, the good news is – Okoki will be reopening for the 2017-18 dry season, with a brand-new well sunk to provide on-site water, and the camp being restored. We can’t wait to bring birders back for a chance to experience truly one of the great wilderness adventures in Cambodia. Okoki provides an amazing opportunity to experience a landscape that is fast disappearing across Southeast Asia.