Thailand Highlights Jan 08—25, 2007

Posted by David Bishop

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David Bishop

David Bishop loves his vocation and cannot imagine anything better than exploring wild and beautiful places in Asia and the Pacific in the company of friends and clients. H...

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Our Thailand tour was the concluding part of what many are coming to regard as the ultimate "Indochina Combo." Starting in December with our tour to Vietnam, it continued with an extension to the mountains of the north for Christmas. Our time in Vietnam was followed by our immensely successful Cambodia tour which many of the Thailand participants could not resist. And so, to our finale in Thailand—and what a finale it was! Thailand just gets better and better. Ours was a happy, easy tour with tons of birds and mammals, fabulous and fascinating landscapes, a delightfully charming people, some great antiquities and, arguably, some of the most delicious food ever encountered on a tour—especially those sumptuous meals in the field.

We garnered a total of 416 species of birds in just 15 days in the field, and a very impressive list of 28 species of mammals. But that wasn't the half of it. Highlights were numerous, but for me it was, quite simply, the joy of being in the field, being on tour with a harmonious and fun group, and working with our incomparable drivers, chef, and my wonderful friend Mike.

I doubt that any of the participants—during that afternoon in Kaeng Krachan—will ever forget the seemingly nonchalant female leopard that sauntered down the track in front of their jeep! And it was a first for Dion too. Consider an unforgettable spotlighting trip in Khao Yai which included a herd of tears-inducing Asian elephants with their adorable calf; a binturong lolling in the forest-canopy; and a supporting cast of leopard cat, three species of civet, and two species of giant flying squirrels. Add to that a pack of dhole (Asian wild dogs) that strolled across the road in front of us and you have quite a list of exceptional mammal experiences.

The birds weren't too shabby either; yours truly finally caught up with White-rumped Falcon. A pair of this striking but rather dapper looking raptor put on a wonderful show one morning at Doi Inthanon. Elsewhere we oohed and aahed to a wonderful variety of "Real Birds" including point-blank views of Spot-breasted Parrotbills, Spot-necked Babblers, a group of eight White-hooded Babblers, and stunning views of both Pygmy and Limestone wren-babblers. Others of perhaps a more classical beauty included a very confiding male Green Peafowl, resplendent in all his finery; Blue Pitta; hordes of Great, Brown, Wreathed, and Oriental Pied hornbills; to everyone's astonishment at least one Coral-billed Ground-Cuckoo seen by the entire group; a small flock of the increasingly rarely seen Pin-tailed Parrotfinch; and an amazing total of 19 species of Asia's glorious woodpeckers including a displaying trio of Great Slaty's as we made our way home one late afternoon. As if all this weren't enough, not one but five, yes five Spoon-billed Sandpipers permitted us to wear out our Leica telescopes as we drank in every essence of this blue-ribbon shorebird. And let's not forget the numerous Broad-billed Sandpipers, Long-toed Stints, and single but distinctive Nordmann's Greenshank so brilliantly found by Mr. Tee. And then, just to remind us that nature really is the boss, a 12-foot king cobra wandered across in front of our jeep on our very last morning in the field. Fabulous stuff, and we cannot wait to get back.

Thailand has long been known as a great destination for first-time birders in Asia and it unfailingly lives up to high expectations! Notwithstanding, first-time visitors and experienced Asian birders alike enjoy Thailand for its great national parks and superb birding opportunities, along with its fine cuisine, friendly people, and fascinating culture and history. In a nutshell, a birding trip to Thailand is a win-win situation. Our Highlights tour this year was typically exciting with stays in four of Thailand's (in fact this region's) premier nature reserves: Khao Yai, Doi Inthanon, Doi Ang Kang, and Kaeng Krachan.

We spent the first day pottering northwards through the Chao Praya valley stopping at Wat Phai Lom with its immense breeding colony of Asian Openbill Storks, en route to the ancient capital of Ayuthya. In surrounding fields we enjoyed fine looks at a flock of 70+ very handsome Gray-headed Lapwings, in addition to a plethora of other birds including four species of kingfisher. Ayuthya treated us to the first of many sumptuous lunches and some very attractive antiquities before we moved on to Wat Phra Phutthabat Noi and the home of the rather localized Limestone Wren-Babbler. Thanks to Nick Upton for clear and precise directions to this very attractive site, and be assured it's a keeper for future tours.

As always at Khao Yai we had some wonderful experiences, particularly a night of spotlighting which turned up an incredible list of mammals and birds (see above). Khao Yai is well-known for its abundance and diversity of birdlife; it holds a fabulous representation of the Indochinese avifauna and we sampled an array of small mixed-flock species, as well as many elusive ground-dwellers, not to mention raptors, hornbills, and nightbirds.

We concentrated on two very important birding sites in the north: Thailand's highest mountain, Doi Inthanon, and the picturesque Doi Ang Khang right on the Burmese border. An early morning visit to Hua Kong Khai, one of the Queen's projects just north of Chiang Mai, was rewarded with stunning Green Peafowls in the morning mist on the lakeside, not to mention great scope views of Black Baza and Brown-rumped Minivets.

One of the most exciting aspects of Doi Inthanon National Park is that the central road provides a transect through the lowland dry dipterocarp forests to moist evergreen forest and, ultimately, to montane evergreen forest. This allows us to sample a wonderful variety of the wildlife of northern southeast Asia. Essentially we started at the top and worked our way down over three days. On the boardwalk on the Doi Inthanon summit, affectionately known as The Bog, we soon encountered an incredibly cryptic Eurasian Woodcock, a foraging Rufous-throated Partridge, a pair of White-browed Shortwings, and a male Snowy-browed Flycatcher. As the sun emerged, the mixed flocks took advantage of the warming rays and we thrilled to the nonstop activity of Chestnut-tailed Minlas, Mrs. Gould's Sunbirds, Rufous-winged Fulvettas, Yellow-bellied Fantails, Blyth's Leaf-Warblers, and Dark-backed Sibias. Moving down the mountain we found barbets, forktails, babblers, and bulbuls in profusion, especially in the vicinity of the jeep track. However, an unusually confiding Siberian Blue Robin at Mr. Deng's was a nice surprise.

Up in the far northwest at Doi Ang Khang, the birding is always super exciting! This year we found flowering trees just full of birds feeding on the nectar and insects: White-headed Bulbul, Chestnut-bellied Rock-Thrush, Orange-bellied Leafbird, Silver-eared Mesia, and Streaked Spiderhunter were all in evidence. Small areas of grassland at the higher altitudes were especially productive with some very exciting birds seen exceptionally well: Spot-breasted Parrotbill, White-browed Laughingthrush, and Crested and Little buntings to name but a few. Another undoubted highlight must be mentioned: those incredible Red-faced Liocichlas and the male Bay Woodpecker that put on such a wonderful show for us.

An exploratory morning along the border road to Doi Lang left us wanting more, but in the time we had we all got to see the globally threatened Jerdon's Bushchat, thanks to Daphne and Romney. A flowering tree added a group of five Gray-headed Parakeets, and we nearly, very nearly nailed an initially responsive Red-billed Scimitar-Babbler—now that's birding!

Our day spent in the Gulf of Siam at Khok Kam and Lam Pak Bia, south of Bangkok, in search of migratory shorebirds, was a resounding success. We encountered so many wonderful shorebirds and had the opportunity to study them at length. Tucked away among them were some very special treats in the form of five Spoon-billed Sandpipers, one Nordmann's Greenshank, Great Knot, Long-toed Stints, Broad-billed Sandpipers, and a single Ruff. Add to this a nice mix of savanna palm woodland, farmland, and freshwater marshes with two species of jacanas, bitterns, and Greater Spotted Eagles, and it was a real birdy day. What a treat!

Kaeng Krachan is unarguably one of the most exciting reserves in southeast Asia. This huge area of evergreen forest on the southern Burmese border simply abounds with all sorts of exciting wildlife. The mixture of birds from the Sundaic region (Malaysia and Indonesia) and continental Thai-Burma region is one of the most exciting aspects of this superb reserve and leaves you always wanting to go back for another day or three. "Real Birds" (babblers) abound, as do woodpeckers, and, if you are lucky, pheasants, partridges, adorable dusky leaf monkeys, trumpeting elephants, leopards in the daytime, Black-thighed Falconets and, and, and—yes, the place never runs out of wonderful experiences and things to see.