Bird watching on the Ayeyarwady River
(text compiled by Paul Bates, Harrison Institute)
The Ayeyarwady River is 2,170 km in length. Its headwaters are fed by the streams of the eastern Himalayas and its journey ends in the Bay of Bengal. Its catchment area is 413,710 km2, which is more than half Myanmar’s land area.
During this low water season, December to March, the river level will drop 25 to 30 metres in the First Defile (a narrow gorge) below Myitkyina, while in the 1,200 km stretch south of Bhamo, it will fall, on average, 12 metres. It is at this time that wildlife is most abundant and easiest to observe.
The numerous sand banks and shallows provide ideal habitats for wading birds, ducks and geese, many of which are winter migrants. In addition to the rich diversity of bird species, the river is also home to the endemic and critically endangered Irrawaddy River Dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris).
One of the best areas to visit for waterfowl used to be north of Bhamo and in the vicinity of Myitkyina, where highlights included White-bellied Heron and large flocks of Bar-headed Geese. However, for security reasons, it is currently not possible to visit this region, whilst it is reported that environmental problems have significantly decreased the numbers of birds seen.
The Bhamo to Mandalay section includes the beautiful, forested Second Defile (gorge) and the Irrawaddy Dolphin Protected Area. This latter area is a stretch of river that covers 50 km from Singu to Mingun (just north of Mandalay). It is home to most of the few remaining dolphins, which although rare are regularly seen. It also has a rich bird fauna with 100+ bird species. On the west bank, in the midpart, it is bordered by the small (44 hectares) but wonderful Tawyagyi Wildlife Sanctuary (c.o. 22° 16’N, 95° 59’E), which was founded in 1852 and is Myanmar’s oldest protected area. The sanctuary has an equally small (approximately 30 to 40 individuals) but thriving population of the Myanmar race of the endangered Eld’s Deer (Cervus eldii thamin) and a diverse bird fauna.
The most accessible part of the Ayeyarwady River is between Bagan and Bhamo. Many boats make the long day trip from Mandalay to Bagan, although the return journey, against the strong river current, usually takes two days and one night. Alternatively, and better for wildlife watching, there is an increasing number of cruise boats that sail from Mandalay north to Kyaukmyaung, Katha or even as far as Bhamo. Others go the short trip to Mingun, approximately one hour, but there is little wildlife to see on this journey. If you wish to combine a leisurely cruise with some bird watching, it is recommended that you contact a travel agent such as GeoDiscover Travel who can put together a bespoke package for you. Alternatively, it is possible to undertake some day trips on the river by hiring a small boat, especially from Bagan or Mandalay.
Bird species include*: Anatidae: Lesser-Whistling Duck, Bar-headed Goose, Comb Duck, Ruddy Shelduck, Chinese Spot-billed Duck, Northern Pintail, Tufted Duck. Ciconiidae: Painted Stork, Asian Openbill, Black Stork. Threskiornithidae: Glossy Ibis. Ardeidae: Chinese Pond Heron, Eastern Cattle Egret, Grey Heron, Great Egret, Little Egret. Phalacrocoracidae: Little Cormorant, Great Cormorant. Anhingidae: Oriental Darter. Falconidae: Common Kestrel, Peregrine Falcon, Osprey, Oriental Honey-buzzard, Black-shouldered Kite, Black Kite, Pied Harrier, Shikra, Himalayan Buzzard, Long-legged Buzzard. Gruidae: Common Crane. Vanellidae: River Lapwing, Grey-headed Lapwing. Charadriidae: Little Ringed Plover, Kentish Plover. Scolopacidae: Common Sandpiper, Green Sandpiper. Glareolidae: Oriental Pratincole, Small Pratincole. Sternidae: River Tern. Laridae: Pallas’s Gull, Black-headed Gull. Columbidae: Spotted Dove. Psittacidae: Blossom-headed Parakeet. Apodidae: Asian Palm-swift. Alcedinidae: White-throated Kingfisher, Common Kingfisher, Pied Kingfisher. Meropidae: Little-green Bee-eater. Upupidae: Common Hoopoe. Armatidae: Ashy Woodswallow. Dicruridae: Hair-crested Drongo. Corvidae: Rufous Treepie. Laniidae: Long-tailed Shrike. Nectariniidae: Olive-backed Sunbird. Passeridae: Plain-backed Sparrow. Motacillidae: Red-throated Pipit, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Citrine Wagtail. Sturnidae: White-vented Myna, Vinuous-breasted Myna, Black-collared Starling. Muscicapidae: Blue Rock-thrush, Eastern Stonechat, White-tailed Stonechat Oriental Magpie-robin. Alaudidae: Sand Lark. Hirundinidae: Common Sand-martin, Grey-throated Sand-martin, Barn Swallow, Red-rumped Swallow. Timaliidae: White-throated Babbler. Cisticolidae: Zittang Cisticola,, Common Tailorbird, and Plain Prinia.
*list compiled from various sources published online; the list is not complete and is for indicative purposes only.
Tours (that include Ayeyarwady River)
There are no bird tours that specifically target the Ayeyarwady River. However, it is possible to include a morning on the river as part of a tour to Bagan or alternatively contact tour companies such as GeoDiscover Travel who can arrange a short bespoke cruise on the river that can include bird watching.
A recent report from FFI (Fauna and Flora International, UK) has highlighted a drastic decline in bird numbers on the Ayeyarwady River (further information). However, although it is known that gold mining, pollution and disturbance is a major problem in the northern stretches of the river, above Bhamo, the situation is not so clear-cut in the central area, especially north Mandalay and including the Irrawaddy Dolphin Protected Area. Here gold mining, for example, is relatively rare (further information) and there are vast expanses of suitable sandbanks and shallow waters that are ideal for wintering populations of waterfowl and waders. Rapid surveys by the Harrison Institute and the University of Mandalay in 2015, with additional range-restricted, short surveys (from 2015 to 2017) suggest that there are good numbers of waterfowl in many areas, although the rarest species such as Indian Skimmer, Black-bellied Tern and Thick-knees appear to have become locally extinct (further information).
There are no published visitor reports. A survey of the Ayeyarwady River from Mandalay to Bhamo is available (further information).