Thailand Highlights Feb 19—Mar 10, 2011
Posted by Dion Hobcroft
As always, it was a great pleasure to showcase the wonderful country that is Thailand, with its fantastic birding and wildlife experiences, superb food, and excellent infrastructure. Thailand is the perfect "first visit" destination for those keen to experience Oriental birding, and can be taken in combination with VENT's tours to Cambodia and Vietnam.
Leaving the very comfortable Novotel Suvarnabhumi in our wake, we made our way to the Muang Boran fishponds on the southeast side of Bangkok. We quickly worked up an impressive list of bird sightings with numerous Yellow Bitterns, Cotton Pygmy-geese, White-browed Crakes, Blue-tailed Bee-eaters, Oriental Pratincoles, and Asian Golden Weavers getting the tour off to a good start. We made a detour to see a colony of restless Lyle's flying-foxes, and after lunch we explored the ruins of Ayuthya, the ancient capital of Siam.
Our base for the next three nights was the wonderful Khao Yai National Park. We spent time exploring the roads and trails, finding a great diversity of forest birds. Some of the many great highlights here included stunning views of Silver Pheasant, Buffy Fish-Owl, Great Hornbill at a nest, Long-tailed Broadbill, White-crested Laughingthrush, amazing views of the elusive Eared Pitta, Mugimaki Flycatcher, and Rufous-tailed Robin. Mammals were in good form with superb views of the rare pileated gibbon, an excellent view of the Asian wild dog for some, and great views of smooth otter and a bull Asian elephant advancing down the road, sending our vans into reverse!
We flew north to Chiang Mai and made our morning excursion to Huai Hong Khrai, a Royal Project protecting an extensive area of dry teak woodland. It is home to an increasing population of the endangered and truly stunning Green Peafowl, and after dawn we were soon enjoying scope views of a roosting male. Then it was time to head to Doi Inthanon, the highest mountain in Thailand. An afternoon exploring the dry teak woodlands near the hotel turned up a flock of roosting Blossom-headed Parakeets.
Everyone loved the mossy evergreen forest with its flowering rhododendrons at the summit of Doi Inthanon. The cool crisp air came with a rush of new birds including such gems as Pygmy Wren-Babbler, Himalayan Bluetail, White-browed Shortwing, Snowy-browed Flycatcher, Chestnut-tailed Minla, Silver-eared Laughingthrush, and Green-tailed Sunbird. Great views of a number of forest skulkers followed, including an unforgettable pair of Black-tailed Crakes, Dark-sided and Gray-sided thrushes, a fledgling Eye-browed Wren-Babbler, ghost-like White-necked Laughingthrush, and Slaty-bellied Tesia, punctuated with showy songsters like Rufous-backed Sibia or glowing sprites like Mrs. Gould's Sunbird.
Our success continued in an easily accessible area of traditional rice cultivation. Our focus was Gray-headed Lapwing and these produced wonderful views, but the female Greater Painted Snipe was something else. In the drier woodlands we spotted the "pocket rocket" Collared Falconet and the scarce Black-backed Forktail, and had an excellent study of a Slaty-backed Forktail. Heading north we made a stop at Doi Chiang Dao where, with a bit of patience, we picked up Streaked Wren-Babbler and Great Iora, and were attacked by a tame male Silver Pheasant!
Doi Ang Khang, farther north and west bordering Burma, was our next port of call. The birding here is always wonderful, with border specialties like Mountain Bamboo-Partridge, Red-faced Liocichla, Crested Finchbill, White-browed Laughingthrush, White-capped Water Redstart, Rufous-bellied Niltava, White-tailed Robin, and Scaly and Black-breasted thrushes all making a much appreciated appearance and all giving superb views.
We dropped down into the valley at Thaton and spent a warm afternoon wandering through the fields. An absolutely terrific male Pied Harrier showed us why it is one of the electrifying raptors of the world, and we enjoyed great views of the peculiar Eurasian Wryneck, Citrine Wagtail, Bluethroat, and Rufous-winged Buzzard. Our final great ascent was to the rarely visited Doi Lang. This is the only site in Thailand for a handful of birds. We had a fabulous day that included outstanding sightings of rarities like White-gorgeted Flycatcher, a perched male White-bellied Green-Pigeon, Crimson-breasted Woodpecker, Long-tailed Sibia, and even a stripe-backed weasel.
Chiang Saen Lake, close to the Golden Triangle where the Mekong River separates Burma, Thailand, and Laos, is largely a non-hunting area that attracts considerable numbers of wetland birds. We embarked on a Chiang Saen pelagic trip in a comfortable flat-bottomed boat with a shade awning. This enabled us to get among the ducks, allowing fine views of Indian Spotbills, Ferruginous Duck, and many Garganey, while a lone Osprey was a good sighting for Thailand. The impressive Mekong River was accessed where Small Pratincole, River Lapwing, Ruddy Shelduck, and Temminck's Stint were on offer.
Flying south, it was time for one of the world's great birding days—exploring the Gulf of Siam with shorebird guru Mr. Tee. On arrival at Khok Kham, we were met by Tee focusing our first Spoon-billed Sandpiper in his scope. Tragically, this bird is well on its way to extinction, its population halving almost every breeding season. It was mixed in with numerous other shorebirds including Great Knots, Broad-billed Sandpipers, and Long-toed Stints—a great start to an epic day. We also connected with a Slender-billed Gull, a vagrant in Thailand, before shifting our attention farther south to Laem Pak Bia, where we explored by boat to the Gulf of Siam and a tidal sand spit. Chinese Egret and Malayan Plover were both welcome, but the sighting of a superb pair of White-faced Plovers in fresh breeding plumage continued the momentum of the morning. We finished the afternoon with a further three Spoon-billed Sandpipers and more than 30 Spotted Greenshanks, and tallied a remarkable 30 species of shorebirds for this day.
We traveled the following morning to the extensive freshwater marshes at Khao Sam Roi Yot, set against a spectacular limestone karst. Amazing views of a bunch of secretive freshwater birds followed, with Yellow Bittern, Ruddy-breasted Crake, Black-browed Reed-Warbler, Pheasant-tailed and Bronze-winged jacanas, Cotton Pygmy-Goose, and Chestnut Munia all being well-appreciated. In the afternoon we visited the Pala-U waterfall area of Kaeng Krachan National Park that, while quiet for birdlife, produced superb views of two scarce primates: the formidable stump-tailed macaque and the delightful banded langur. Two more Asian elephants were a bonus.
Our final two full days of birding took us deep into the Tenasserim Range and the wonderful Kaeng Krachan National Park. This is a wonderful national park, where you never quite know what to expect. Our first morning started with a steady flow of interesting sightings ranging from Silver-breasted Broadbill at close range to Green Magpies building a nest by the roadside. Thick-billed Green-Pigeons and Rusty-cheeked Hornbill made vital appearances, while the view of a booming Mountain Imperial-Pigeon less than three meters from us was remarkable, and an indicator of the level of protection afforded the wildlife in this park.
The next morning we drove right into hill forest and were well-rewarded with a great view of the scarce Ratchet-tailed Treepie. A giant fruiting fig tree hosted Great Hornbill and a troop of dusky langurs and vocal white-handed gibbons, and a pair of female Yellow-vented Green-Pigeons was a fortuitous break. Dusky Broadbill in the scope was a highlight, along with a white morph male Asian Paradise-Flycatcher, Spot-necked Babbler, and Chinese Blue Flycatcher. We finished with a flurry of sightings including point-blank views of Greater and Lesser Necklaced laughingthrushes, Puff-throated and Abbott's babblers, Tickell's Blue-Flycatcher, and the delightful Siberian Blue Robin.
On our last morning we were well-positioned to connect with an incredible pair of Bar-backed Partridges and Large Scimitar-Babblers, both wonderful and elusive birds. Golden-crowned Myna and a Banded Kingfisher rounded out our trip list, while a Black-and-yellow Broadbill led us on an ultimately frustrating search (such is jungle life). Wild Thailand is a must-visit destination.
Our wonderful team with Nate and Tee driving, Sakhon and Tiep preparing the delicious meals, and Mike leading the charge and smoothing all problems before they arose allowed me to do what I do best: get you folks on the birds, mammals, butterflies, and other animals. They all did a terrific job.
We would also like to thank our wonderful participants for traveling with VENT and making this tour so enjoyable.