Thailand Highlights Mar 04—23, 2017

Posted by Dion Hobcroft

Hobcroftdion

Dion Hobcroft

Dion Hobcroft has been working for VENT since 2001. He has led many tours (more than 160) to Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, Bhutan, Indonesia, India, China, Southwest ...

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We were back on the road in the Kingdom of Thailand for our annual tour—arguably my favorite tour because of the wonderful people, tasty food, and fabulous wildlife opportunities. It is always a great trip. This is especially so for the wonderful team who look after us so well in the field. This year was no exception. 

As usual, we kicked off festivities in the fish ponds of Muang Boran. Some new fences had us temporarily perplexed before we found a way in. The first pond we perused held Cotton Pygmy-Geese, lots of White-browed Crakes, some Asian Golden Weavers, the males of which were in advanced breeding plumage, and, best of all, a trio of Baillon’s Crakes, two of which foraged in scope view. Overhead a Peregrine Falcon zoomed past while Oriental Pratincoles “chittered” overhead, looking remarkably tern-like. We explored more ponds that held several Yellow Bitterns and various aquatic warblers like two species of Prinia (Plain and Yellow-bellied) and two species of Reed-Warbler (Black-browed and Oriental). Blue-tailed Bee-eaters and Coppersmith Barbet added some color, and both Asian Koel and Plaintive Cuckoo allowed good long looks. We moved along to nearby Bang Poo where we fed hundreds of Brown-headed Gulls and Whiskered Terns, many of which were coloring up for the forthcoming breeding season. In the mangroves, Golden-bellied Gerygones were very tame, while the bird hide produced some surprises like a small flock of Gray-headed Lapwings, several Painted Storks, fabulous Black-capped Kingfisher, and new for the leader, an impressive Radiated Rat Snake a meter in length that crossed in front of us. We did some miles to head to the ancient capital of Siam, Ayutthya. We enjoyed a short boat trip on the Chao Phraya River that dropped us off at the ruins of the King’s Temple. It allowed us to admire Pied Kingfishers, with a short walk around the temple adding Asian Pied Starling and a lovely male Small Minivet. One last stop gave us the best imaginable views of the localized and often elusive Limestone Wren-Babbler. Soon we were enjoying a cold beer and several excellent dishes as we tallied off 81 species for the day list.

Limestone Wren-Babbler

Limestone Wren-Babbler— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

Khao Yai National Park is a superb site, well-protected with a variety of tropical forest habitats. It was to be our playground for the next two and a half days as we explored different locations. It began well with four Great Hornbills “swooshing” past and perching around us, as we took in a rush of new birds. The penultimate highlight of our first session was watching a Long-tailed Broadbill building its nest when it was attacked by a Japanese Sparrowhawk (initially thought to be a Besra, but re-identified from photos supplied by Terry). The sparrowhawk missed the broadbill and ended suspended in the nest, tangled by its talons. This was while the scope and cameras were focused on the scene. As we headed to lunch, a superb male Siamese Fireback was surprised in the middle of the road and, while it did not linger, the views were good. Good birds abounded ranging from Orange-breasted Trogon, Mountain Hawk-Eagle, Oriental Pied Hornbill, Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo, Large Hawk-Cuckoo, Vernal Hanging-Parrot, and Common Hill-Myna plus many more. In the afternoon we had a good run with a highly photogenic Red-headed Trogon, enjoyed the spectacular Black-throated Laughingthrush, and admired a cute Lesser Gymnure.

The next full day was one of the best of the tour. Mixed flock activity was quite good, and we enjoyed the evocative songs and some views of the superb White-handed Gibbon. On one trail we watched Puff-throated Babblers, calling Moustached Barbets, Hill Blue Flycatcher, and a Blue Whistling-Thrush. On another we had Greater Flamebacks perched up, sharing the space with a Banded Bay Cuckoo. We finished the morning with a ghost-like male Silver Pheasant pulled out by an amazing piece of spotting by sharp-eyed Rat. Luckily the pheasant was not too spooked and milled about in the shadows of the forest; thanks to some discrete pointing, everyone saw this amazing bird. After it disappeared, a Rufous-bellied Eagle chose the moment to soar past. After the obligatory siesta we were back in the park and trying to track down a Collared Owlet that was piping away incessantly from a giant fig tree. It took about twenty minutes and the breakthrough was made, and we enjoyed the pocket rocket pulsing in the scope. Shortly afterwards we located another male Siamese Fireback, and some lucky folks added their second pheasant species for the day. Another high-pitched squeaky vocalization was identified by the leader as the call of an alarmed Asian Elephant and, shortly after, a young bull elephant came up on the road where luckily we were in the safety of the vans! It gave some great views, and we could hear some others crashing about and snapping branches. Lucky us, as elephants can be difficult here, well-hidden in extensive forest. Our spotlighting drive proved quite good. First we studied a Banded Kukri Snake, a specialized predator of reptile eggs. We had great views of two Small Indian Civets, several Large-tailed Nightjars, a Brown Boobook, and three strikingly patterned and rather sizeable Malayan Porcupines.

Red-headed Trogon, female

Red-headed Trogon, female— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

We had one last morning in the park. It started slowly with some feeble glimpses of timid Banded Kingfishers, but gained momentum as we enjoyed a dapper pair of Heart-spotted Woodpeckers, a Laced Woodpecker, finally our first Green-eared Barbet, trees lit with flocks of Scarlet Minivets, and ended with the flourish of the extraordinary Sultan Tit. As we exited the park, we found a massive bull Asian Elephant with tusks a meter long blocking the road. What a way to finish our time in Khao Yai. We got past safely, and soon we were whisked by plane to the far north of Thailand, to the city of Chiang Mai.

It now seems that the population of Green Peafowl at Huai Hong Khrai has really enjoyed the protection of recent years. We had a record-breaking fourteen individuals, twelve of which were in view at once. Two were fully “trained” males that at a length of over eight feet are amongst the most incredible birds on the planet. It is excellent to see them responding to protection. The dry woodlands here are sparse with birds, but we did kick a few goals. A lovely mixed flock of Rosy and Swinhoe’s minivets milled about; a Green-billed Malkoha almost flew into us before realizing its folly; and Lineated Barbets and loads of Greater Racket-tailed Drongos distracted us, as did the distinctive “white-faced” population of Eurasian Jays. There were plenty of Red Junglefowl, and Shikra were found nest-building. With mission accomplished, we returned to Chiang Mai before motoring south to our next key destination, Doi Inthanon—the highest mountain in Thailand and a world-famous birding hotspot. The afternoon was spent doing a survey within 100 meters of the vans on the edge of agricultural country and dry teak woodlands. We had great views of a bunch of birds restricted to this habitat. Best were six Blossom-headed Parakeets, a pair of Indochinese Bushlarks, a couple of Green Bee-eaters, a single Black-collared Starling, a small flock of Chestnut-tailed Starlings, a Black-headed Oriole, and the lovely Plain-backed Sparrow (a rather unfortunate name for a very attractive passerine!).

Collared Owlet

Collared Owlet— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

The summit of Doi Inthanon at 2,586 meters offers fantastic birding in the Rhododendron evergreen forests that typify central China and the Himalaya. It is a rush of fantastic birds: Silver-eared Laughingthrush, Chestnut-tailed Minla, Dark-backed Sibia, and Yellow-bellied Fairy-Fantail; skulkers like Pygmy Cupwing, White-browed Shortwing, Dark-sided and Gray-sided thrushes, timid Rufous-throated Partridge, and Snowy-browed Flycatcher; and energetic Green-tailed Sunbirds and foliage-gleaning leaf-warblers like Blyth’s, Buff-barred, and Ashy-throated. Rhododendrons and orchids were flowering, and we searched for sightings between moss and lichens shaded by giant old growth trees. In the morning cool, it really is a delightful experience. We dropped lower to lunch at a quiet waterfall where a wintering White-capped Redstart was present. We found a nesting Ashy Drongo, a Rufous-bellied Niltava, found our first Oriental Honey-buzzard, and enjoyed some fantastic butterflies like the incredible Dead Leaf and a most unusual Swordtail. After our siesta we tried our luck with forktails, but both species were missing in action—there was a lot of human disturbance around the key sites. We did find a male Plumbeous Redstart, and unusual were a pair of Dusky Crag-Martins. The Blue Whistling-Thrush would not leave us alone.

We enjoyed a breakfast set in evergreen forest as the light of the sun warmed the canopy. It starts a peak hour rush, and the bird activity was feverish. Asian Emerald Cuckoo males were agitated, singing and chasing each other, perching conspicuously on exposed branches showing their deep malachite in all its luster. Spectacled Barwings chattered amongst us, while a list of birds perched up from Short-billed Minivet, Streaked Spiderhunter, Bronzed and Lesser Racket-tailed drongos, Maroon Oriole, Slaty-backed Flycatcher, Yellow-cheeked Tit, Flavescent Bulbul and so forth. We ventured into the forest interior and had quite a good run with some seriously shy yet beautifully patterned birds that showed well, like a Slaty-bellied Tesia with its orange mouth interior, Eye-browed Wren-Babbler with its dotted wing coverts, golden-bellied Mountain Tailorbird, and aptly named Golden Babblers. Hume’s Treecreepers and Chestnut-crowned Warblers collected moss for their well-hidden nests right next to us. With patience and persistence, this birding is good fun. The afternoon was again rather slow in the hot lowlands, but we did flush a Chinese Francolin and ended with a good variety of birds like the superb Crested Treeswift, some Pin-tailed Snipe, and excellent Blossom-headed Parakeets again. We tried to follow up on a reported sighting of Red-billed Starling, potentially a first for Thailand, but could not locate it.

Hodgson's Frogmouth and chick

Hodgson’s Frogmouth and chick— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

Our last morning at Doi Inthanon was spent slowly hiking another forest trail. It was quite windy, and the birds at first were frustrating. Slowly but surely we began to get some good sightings, with a Vivid Niltava a fine start. A White-throated Fantail showed well dancing about in front of us. Next the rather beautiful Striated Bulbul performed, and an Ashy Wood-Pigeon loped over. A female Clicking Shrike-Babbler was hard to pin down, although the handsome Blyth’s Shrike-Babblers were watched feeding their chick caterpillars. The Large Niltava was on strike today and refused to settle; every time I spotted it, it took off. Then the brilliantly colored Silver-eared Mesias appeared at the trackside, and there was much appreciation from the assembled birders. For much of the morning we had heard the sweet pure whistle of the Green Cochoa, a most difficult bird to see. On one occasion we caught a glimpse, but could not get it perched. We persisted and, after a lengthy game of cat and mouse and after it seemed all was lost, the breakthrough came, and there it was—a superb male Green Cochoa in full view for our lucky group. What a spanker! Leaving Doi Inthanon we broke the drive north at spectacular Doi Chiang Dao. Blue-throated Barbet, Blue-eared Barbet, Pin-tailed Pigeon, and Little Spiderhunter lured us up the Naga staircase to the Wat in a limestone cave where a Streaked Wren-Babbler sang gleefully, using the roof as an echo chamber. The drive to the summit of Doi Ang Khang was golden in the late afternoon light, and one van had the great fortune to see a male and three female Hume’s Pheasants on the road just short of our lovely hotel.

Our full day at Doi Ang Khang was a highlight of this tour. Well-positioned at first light, one of the first sightings was a Giant Nuthatch, a cracking start to see this old growth pine forest rarity in the scope. Good birds followed thick and fast: Scarlet-faced Liocichla, Crested Finchbill, Brown-breasted Bulbul, Stripe-breasted Woodpecker, Rufous-backed Sibia, Long-tailed Minivet, Chestnut-vented Nuthatch, and Burmese Shrike. At the Royal Project we explored the gardens, sighting glowing Gould’s Sunbirds in the flowering Callistemon. A thermal was shared by Common Buzzard and Oriental Honey-buzzards. A flock of Spot-winged Grosbeaks gave superb views. In a secluded bamboo gully we enjoyed White-tailed Robin, Black-breasted Thrush, Hill Blue Flycatcher, Silver-eared Mesia, and Silver-breasted Broadbill. It was a bird-rich morning. The afternoon was a bit quieter, and for a while we struggled to find much new, with Great Barbet refusing to settle, like a timid pair of Greater Yellownapes. A Eurasian Hoopoe bucked the trend, while Striated Yuhinas also gave great looks. We returned to the area of the previous day’s Hume’s Pheasant sighting to rectify the dip of the missing van, and our plan worked well when the male wandered onto the road in all his glory and lingered for just the right amount of time for us to take in this spectacular and elusive mega. It was my first sighting of this species at Doi Ang Khang where they are notoriously difficult.

Hume's Pheasant

Hume’s Pheasant— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

We had a last morning session at Doi Ang Khang and again it was good fun. With a reduced list of target species to search for, we picked up a few common birds we had just heard or glimpsed before like Japanese Tit, Gray Bushchat, and Oriental White-eye. We found a large flock of White-browed Laughingthrushes, but the real showstopper was a superb Spot-breasted Parrotbill that could not have performed better. A Russet Bush-Warbler gave some great looks for this supreme skulker, and the Rufous-fronted Babbler was also well-behaved, if typically skittish. We had repeat great looks at several of the species we had enjoyed the day before, with again excellent views of both Giant and Chestnut-vented nuthatches, plus Grace caught up on the Burmese Shrike. Down the mountain, on the floodplain of the Mae Khok River in Thaton district, we visited two sites in the afternoon. The first delivered the handsome Chestnut-capped Babbler, breeding-plumaged male ocularis White Wagtail, and a few winter-plumaged Red Avadavats. The next site revealed a stunning male Siberian Rubythroat and a very chestnut Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler that was presumably of the western subspecies rubescens. It gave some quite decent views for this typically skulking but well-loved little nuisance!

Doi Lang is one of the most exciting bird sites in Thailand. It invariably produces an exciting mix of birds. We started with a Gray Nightjar and a male Hume’s Pheasant displaying on the road. In quick succession we had cracking looks at Puff-throated Babbler, Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-Babbler, a splendid male White-bellied Redstart and the more dapper female, a male Siberian Rubythroat, a shy White-browed Scimitar-Babbler, Slaty-blue Flycatcher, White-gorgeted Flycatcher, plus both Silver-eared and White-browed laughingthrushes. As we drove higher up, a pair of Mountain Bamboo-Partridges were located on the road. Also feeding on the road was a Giant Nuthatch, the second time I have seen this behavior at Doi Lang. This was followed by a female Crested Bunting, a Gray-backed Shrike, and a Banded Bay Cuckoo. For the second year running there was a Hodgson’s Frogmouth nesting. The male was brooding a small white downy chick. We watched the male thermo-regulating by gaping widely, evaporative cooling: interesting behavior in a rarely seen species. Then we enjoyed a pair of Black-throated Tits that were busy feeding chicks. Although it was warm, the birds kept coming. A diverse mixed flock was highlighted by a pair of Gray-headed Parrotbills, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, a Chinese Leaf-Warbler, and a small flock of Chestnut Buntings. A Himalayan Cutia was heard singing and flew over, giving just the briefest of views—disappointing, but a real rarity in Thailand. As the bird activity waned, we headed to the lovely hotel to relax in the afternoon.

Spoon-billed Sandpiper

Spoon-billed Sandpiper— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

Our last day in the north of Thailand commenced with a “pelagic” on the Chiang Saen Lake. No need for seasickness medication on this trip, but the water hyacinth is as treacherous as the sea ice in the Weddell Sea! It is the only place we see a variety of ducks, and we recorded five species: Lesser Whistling, Indian Spotbill, two female Falcated Teal, a trio of Northern Pintails, and a good number of Garganey. Other new birds included Great Cormorant, Gray-headed Swamphen, Eurasian Coot, Striated Grassbird, and Racket-tailed Treepie. Unusual was a Puff-faced Water Snake nearly a meter long we found swimming along. Also quite bizarre was sharing breakfast with a tame Oriental Small-clawed Otter, a tame hand-raised pet they were trying to rehabilitate! At a protected riverine grassland site, we called in a shy Baikal Bush-Warbler that jumped about in a thicket, but it was hot and very dry with little subsequent bird activity. After visiting the Mekong River and Golden Triangle, we flew south to Bangkok, ready for our day on the Gulf of Siam and the quest for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper.

For me, this day is one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on the planet. The number and diversity of shorebirds in the Gulf of Siam is phenomenal, and the sight of wheeling flocks of thousands of Great Knots and Eurasian Curlews is a sight to behold. We started this year at Ban Pak Thale as our man on the ground, the wonderful Mr. Tee, had not been able to locate the Spoon-billed Sandpipers on his local patch at Khok Kham in the days leading up to our arrival. So we motored further south with the obligatory early start. It took a bit of searching, but it was all worth it when we had three Spoon-billed Sandpipers in the scope. All were feeding furiously to pack on the fat necessary for their strenuous migration in April to Chukotski Peninsula in far eastern Siberia where the entire world population (about 120 individuals) breeds. We had great looks! We then dashed to the site for Nordmann’s Greenshank, another rare East Asian shorebird, and found seven individuals, some acquiring some spotting on the side of the chest as they acquired their breeding plumage. A bonus was a male White-faced Plover looking striking in its fresh breeding plumage. It was my first sighting of this taxa away from the beach. Next stop produced two Asian Dowitchers, while a boat trip to a remote beach located Malaysian Plover and three Chinese Egrets. The day ended with 30 species of shorebirds, a huge diversity difficult to match elsewhere on the planet.

Kalij Pheasant

Kalij Pheasant— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

We enjoyed a very pleasant morning at Khao Sam Roi Yot, a large protected area of freshwater marshes at the base of jagged karst mountains. A boardwalk allowed us to access the marshes, and they were alive with birds. Amongst the new species for our trip list were Black Bittern, Watercock, Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Streaked Weaver, and Chestnut Munia. After some down time we dined in Hua Hin and then headed west to Kaeng Krachan. We had a relaxing afternoon watching bird activity at a waterhole while hidden from view in a hide. It was a profitable session, and we picked up two especially shy forest birds here—the impressive Large Scimitar-Babbler and the elusive Bar-backed Partridge. There was plenty of activity with Greater and Lesser necklaced laughingthrushes, Abbott’s Babbler, Brown-cheeked Fulvetta, Pale-legged Leaf-Warbler, and Siberian Blue Robin all giving great looks and photographic opportunities.

Kaeng Krachan is a famous wildlife destination—the largest protected forest in southeast Asia. It constantly produces surprises with an amazing array of rare wildlife hidden in the rolling evergreen forests. Today was no exception, except that I could not have predicted the great rarity of the day! With Piek assisting, we headed straight up to the highest reaches accessible in the park. It is necessary to use pick-up all-wheel-drive vehicles here to get up the steep road. We had a quintessential run of mega forest birds: a superb pair of Kalij Pheasants on the road, nesting Black and Buff woodpeckers, nesting Banded Kingfishers (male and female perched side by side), a Green Magpie on a nest, and Long-tailed Broadbills that would not leave us alone. We had great success with the ultra-shy Ratchet-tailed Treepie that gave some lengthy views (well up to 10 seconds!). A pair of the scarce Rusty-cheeked Hornbill quickly dropped from view when they noticed us. A male Red-headed Trogon showed well. Then the rain set in so we waited it out at a shelter. Eventually the rain fizzled out, and the birds came out to dry off, including numerous Great Barbets. A mixed flock produced stunning views of the snowy-headed Collared Babbler and White-browed Scimitar-Babbler. The break in the rain also produced a male and female Gray Peacock-Pheasant, but this very shy bird did not linger. The great rarity turned up at Ban Makan, no doubt stimulated by the rain: a male Asian Giant Tortoise. I literally could not believe it, as these forest dinosaurs are so rare; it really is a giant, weighing up to 40 kilograms (88 pounds). It was quite an uplifting feeling to see it lope off towards the stream. It was a lifer for me and only the second time I have heard of anyone seeing one. To add icing on the cake, and quite amazingly, we then found an Elongated Tortoise, another rare species, crossing the road. Was it true—was Larry a “Tortoise Whisperer” following the great Chelonian luck he conjured in Madagascar! Other birds distracted us, like Black-thighed Falconet, Indian Cuckoo, and Sultan Tit.  A blonde pair of White-handed Gibbons sat out in the open crown of a leafless tree. Tired but impressed with our day, we were off to bed to do it all again the next day.

Long-tailed Broadbill

Long-tailed Broadbill— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

This time we concentrated on the lower section of the park. We watched an Oriental Pied Hornbill feeding its chicks at a nest. There were lots of Greater Flamebacks, beautiful Golden-crowned Mynas, displaying Ruby-cheeked Sunbirds and a brief Malayan Hawk-Cuckoo.  A Black and Yellow Broadbill was well-behaved, a cute little micro-muppet clad in pink and black and yellow. Moving into deeper forest, we were soon kicking some more goals like Buff-rumped Woodpecker, the spectacular Red-bearded Bee-eater, and a cracking Banded Broadbill. After lunch we spent some time waiting for a Blue Pitta, but it did not show. The forest was going quiet, but we spotted a lovely Heart-spotted Woodpecker that was really cooperative, our first Large Woodshrike, and a Silver-breasted Broadbill. Clouds were building; in fact, we saw four airplanes seeding the thunderhead with streams of silver nitrate in a cloud seeding program that is popular in this district. We had one last hoorah: a fantastic pair of Great Slaty Woodpeckers that kept quite relaxed and inanimate. They must have known the cloud seeding was successful, and we exited the park in a voluminous downpour. It had been another great day.

Our last morning was spent at another forest hide. Our major success was focusing our binoculars on the shy Scaly-breasted Partridge. There was constant bird and small mammal activity. Our time had come to leave this wonderful tour, a trip I am sure all participants will look back on with great fondness for the wildlife, the food, and the people. Till next we meet.