Mondulkiri Province


Andi Cross
Marla Tomorug & Adam Moore
October 14, 2023
6 min read
Audio generated for accessibility using AI. Intonation does not express the true level of awe and stoke.

I’ve always loved birds. From a very young age, I was fascinated by all the different species and their unique and often strange behavior. The rounder the better, as the deepest affinity was for those tiny, fat birds that looked more like furbies than they did real, living breathing creatures. Birds were always a thing for me. 

A hobby for many older people in my hometown was bird watching. A few weekends per year, they’d whip out their printed soft-back field guides, pull the tent and all their other camping gear out of the attic and bring their kids off to places like the Poconos or the Catskills. While the whole family was annoyed at that one parent for spending their free time huddled around a random tree in the middle of nowhere looking for the bird called the Northern Goshawk, that parent was relishing in this lifelong hobby connecting them to the great outdoors. 

At the time, bird watching was synonymous with “old” and it was reserved for those with “nothing better to do.” But, little did I know that I would soon become a bird watcher myself and at a much younger age than ever anticipated. And I was soon to realize that many of my friends were bird watchers already—also known in the community as “birders.”

In 2020, I was introduced to a rising star in the world of ornithology that would introduce me to his wild world. John Mittermeier was, quite literally, a die hard, obsessed, repository of everything BIRD. This was the first time I was meeting someone with the title “Director of Threatened Species Outreach” and I thought at the time (and still do present day) that this was the coolest and most niche job I’d ever heard of. He was working at American Bird Conservancy with a dream of bringing back what he called “lost birds,” or those that have not been seen in years, decades, or even centuries! 

In supporting John to realize his big vision in creating a digital tool that would enable birders from all over the world to participate in the search, John showed me that bird watching is not reserved solely for the “old” or for those who have “nothing better to do.” Rather, there is so much we can learn from birds, their behaviors and their ecosystems. I love birds, but no one loves them more than John or his friends. 

Flash forward to November 2023, and Marla, Adam and I are consciously exploring Cambodia and find ourselves standing around a random tree in the middle of nowhere looking for the Tailorbird. We were with the seasoned master himself, Sang Mony, the operations manager and CEO of Sam Veasna Conservation Tours (SVC), looking for special Cambodian birds to fill his eBird log book. 

If you don’t know what eBird is, this is like the holy grail for birders. Or to sum it up in their words, “eBird is an online database of bird observations providing scientists, researchers and amateur naturalists with real-time data about bird distribution and abundance.” Birders from all over the world use this tool to track what they’ve seen, where they’ve seen it and also compete with their friends, family and colleagues, to get the highest ranking in their town, state or country! 

Mony was number two on eBird in all of Cambodia, runner up to one of his colleagues. He wanted to beat this guy that he employs with all of his heart. It was his dream. 

Mony showed up to meet us in full camo, with a pair of hard core binoculars hanging from his neck. He also had brought a camera with a wildlife lens the size of my body and a telescope that looked like it could see other planets perched on his shoulder. His backpack looked like it could protect him from every element, at any time, anywhere. He had field guides for where we were in Cambodia, just like I remembered from childhood.

Now my team and I had just rolled out of a week living on a remote island in the south of Cambodia. Covered in salt, wearing sandals and still rocking a bathing suit underneath our sweatpants and sweatshirts, we didn’t realize how out of place we were soon to be with Mony and his crew of bird enthusiasts. 

But, the thing with birders is, if you show interest and get as into it as the seasoned veterans, they will welcome you with open arms, no questions asked. Doesn’t matter if you havent showered for days and have clearly been spending more time in the ocean than on land. If you like birds, they like you. 

Mony took us under his wing (no pun intended) and showed us the ropes as we traversed from south to north and west to east. Many of the stops we made were entirely following the footsteps of John, as his scientific research coincidentally laid out front and center along our journey.

With more stops along the side of highways, riverbanks, quarries, jungles and conservation reserves, we started to pick up the way of the birder. With more time spent in silence, with our heads tilted upwards, one hand on our binos at all times, putting a single finger to the lips to signal quiet, we were becoming entry level, novice bird watchers hour by hour. 

Every bird we pointed out, feeling proud we had found something tiny between the leaves, was considered “common.” Mony was never particularly impressed with our findings, but happy that we thought it was a win. He was on a quest for his all time favorite bird—the Bar-Bellied Pitta—and the few that would put him ahead of his colleague. Those were the Masked Finfoot, Coral-Billed Ground Cuckoo, Fairy Pitta and Chestnut-Headed Partridge. Yep, all of those names are real! 

The days we spent together, we were wishing for these birds. We played their songs on a portable speaker, we trekked at 5am in the jungle on a conservation area called Jahoo, we even went out in the pouring rain to find these special little guys. 

However, we didn’t have the luck we needed by the time we were departing Cambodia. 

We never got to find Mony’s dream bird, or the others he was searching for. We did get to see some rare and special kingfishers and the national bird called the giant ibis instead. We did come up with epic bird names that could only be found in our imagination such as, “the double breasted warbler” and the “black eyed devil's throat” as well as the “tri-feather pink hen.” And above all else, we did realize that it IS cool to be a birder and we are 30-somethings who are totally into it. 

Bird watching brings us closer to nature. It is a way of connecting with the great outdoors. It's a hobby that does not discriminate and is one of the more welcoming communities we’ve met since being on expedition. In fact, according to NOAA, 45 million Americans consider themselves bird watchers, which means 14% of the population is really into birds. This means that this hobby alone could open up significant conservation opportunities, if birds are involved. And it already has. 

As we’ve seen a number of times on expedition, more people are starting to vacation with conservation in mind. No longer is sightseeing alone good enough, people are now willing to give their time to support causes they care about while taking some time off work or away from home or during a school gap. We’ve met countless people who are seeking conscious exploration, where they learn about other cultures, people and the affiliated history. And, we’ve met people from all corners of the world who love a single animal so much, they are willing to dedicate their lives to it entirely—like the Bar-Bellied Pitta. 

It’s been an eye opening journey learning about how far people will go for the things that they love. It has, at times, made us yearn to love a single thing so much that we would invest all of our heart and soul into it, like Mony and John. However, we’ve come to realize that it’s the people like Mony and John who are far more fascinating to us than even these marvelous birds we’ve witnessed. Our calling is meeting people like them, and letting them lead the way to see where in the world these inspiring people might take us next. 

To be continued …


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