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Searching for the World's Largest Woodpecker Species in Yok Đôn National Park

You first know she’s approaching by the sound of her wings; her broad shadow flashing across the forest floor. Even from far below, her body looks enormous. At half a meter long, she is roughly five times the size of the woodpeckers seen in the gardens of Europe or North America. She is the largest woodpecker left in the world, and the jewel of Yok Đôn National Park.

A great slaty woodpecker. Photo by Md Shahanshah Bappy

This April, I traveled to Đắk Lắk to search for the great slaty woodpecker (gõ kiến xám), a rarely seen species native to the dryer forests of Southeast Asia. In Vietnam, the best chance of spotting this magnificent bird is Yok Đôn National Park. Snug up against the Cambodian border, Yok Đôn offers over 1,000 square kilometers of broadleaved dipterocarp forest. It is the largest national park in Vietnam and was among the first to be founded. But despite its size, beauty and relative accessibility — the park is flat, walkable, and well-maintained — Yok Đôn sees few visitors. The main draw of the park is a population of domesticated Asiatic elephants, another charismatic gray giant.

Yok Đôn's towering dipterocarp trees. Photo by Thomas Mourez.

But we weren’t here for elephants. We were a small party of dedicated birdwatchers, led by Bùi Đức Tiến, vice-president of the Vietnam Bird Conservation Society and a contributor to the recently released Các Loài Chim Việt Nam (The Birds of Vietnam, Thế Giới Publishers). This is the definitive Vietnamese-language photographic guide to the over 800 species of bird that can be found in Vietnam, and it has no equal in English. Which is all to say that Tiến knows his stuff — he’s familiar with the various habitats of the park, and was reasonably sure that we could find one of these gray giants. Still, a birdwatcher knows better than to make promises. The great slaty woodpecker is a threatened species. Previous visitors to the park have come up empty-handed.

Left: Bùi Đức Tiến, vice-president of the Vietnam Bird Conservation Society, during the trip. Right: The road leading into the forest. Photos by Thomas Mourez.

The great slaty woodpecker is not the only giant to be pushed towards extinction by human activity. That caveat, “largest woodpecker left in the world,” is only because the larger ivory-billed and imperial woodpeckers of North America were recently considered to be certainly extinct, though back in the United States there remains a devoted cohort of unicorn-chasers who insist that the ivory-billed is alive, poring over pixelated photos that are roughly as compelling as evidence of bigfoot. For the time being, there is no question that a healthy population of great slaty woodpeckers remains in Yok Đôn. But given their listing in 2010 as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List, their future is not guaranteed.

Tiến explained that the greatest threats to the bird life of Yok Đôn come, predictably, from humans. Cattle grazing within the park boundary, as well as poaching and trapping for the caged bird trade all take their toll. Within minutes of entering the park, we saw evidence of this activity. Herds of cows wandered beneath the broadleaved trees, their bells the only sound in the silence. On our second day, we encountered and destroyed a large mist net, over two meters high and four meters across, meant to snare birds as they passed through. But the bird life in the park remains abundant. We saw 111 species in just four days, 11 of those being different kinds of woodpecker, with gõ kiến xám taking the place of honor atop our list.

It is difficult to describe the sensation of spotting a rare and beautiful bird in the wild. Imagine four people hooting and leaping while trying to make as little noise as possible. Our first of two sightings happened suddenly, a bird bursting across treetops and flying directly over our heads. Its silhouette is that of a pterodactyl — thin neck and oversized head, great dipping wingbeats. The woodpecker landed on an exposed patch of tree trunk just long enough for a few passable photographs, and after that abundant courtesy, it was gone.

Gõ kiến xám seen from a distance. Photo by Thomas Mourez.

We are not alone in this passion, us four lunatics all celebrating as though we’d each just scored the winning goal in a World Cup match. According to the Center for Responsible Travel, birdwatching is a multi-billion dollar industry, with over 3 million international trips taken every year with the primary purpose of birdwatching. As a safe country with outstanding bird diversity, Vietnam stands to benefit from a boom in low-impact, high-spend birdwatchers. Indeed, Tiến sees forest preservation and anti-poaching efforts as working hand-in-hand with efforts to increase domestic interest in Vietnam’s amazing birdlife, and improving accommodations and other tourist infrastructure.

A pair of black-headed woodpeckers (gõ kiến xanh hông đỏ) seen during the trip. Photo by Alexander Yates.

Until that boom comes, gõ kiến xám remains in the forests of Yok Đôn, raising chicks on meals of fat termites. Anyone looking to see them, or the many other stunning falcons, parakeets, owls and woodpeckers that inhabit Yok Đôn, need only step into the woods, look up, and hope.

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