Thailand Highlights Feb 02—21, 2008
Posted by David Bishop
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 led by Susan Myers, it was followed by our immensely successful Cambodia tour, which some of the Thailand participants could not resist.
Thailand just gets better and better. It was a happy, easy tour with tons of birds and mammals, fabulous and fascinating landscapes, a delightfully charming people, some great antiquities, and some of the most delicious food you will ever encounter on tour anywhere in the world, especially those sumptuous meals in the field.
We garnered an impressive total of 453 species of birds in just 17 days in the field, and a very impressive list of 24 species of mammals, not to mention a plethora of gorgeous butterflies and some neat reptiles. But that wasn't the half of it. Highlights were numerous, but for us it was quite simply the joy of being in the field, being on tour with a harmonious, fun group, and working with our incomparable drivers, chef, and, of course, our wonderful friend Mike.
I doubt any of us will ever forget that incredible convocation of Siamese Fireback pheasants early one morning in Khao Yai National Park; nor the tranquility and beauty of the forests on Doi Lang; the incredibly delicious meals served to us in the field and at our hotels and lodges; the plethora of exotic butterflies that accompanied us throughout our tour; and that extraordinary final morning in the forests of Kaeng Krachan when, from a slow start, all hell (perhaps heaven would be more appropriate) broke loose, and we were forced to cancel breakfast and just revel in the onslaught of some very exciting birds—the flocks of Silver-breasted Broadbills will live in my memory forever! Fabulous stuff, and we cannot wait to get back.
Thailand has long been known as a great destination for first-time birders in Asia, as well as seasoned travelers, and it unfailingly lives up to such high expectations! Notwithstanding, first-time visitors and experienced Asian hands 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, in addition to such premier sites as Doi Lang, the Mekong River, and the Gulf of Siam.
We spent the first day pottering northwards through the Chao Praya valley, stopping at Wat Phai Lom with its immense breeding colony of Asian Open-billed Storks, en route to the ancient capital of Ayuthya. In surrounding fields we enjoyed fine looks at a very confiding pair of Ruddy Crakes, in addition to a plethora of other birds including three species of kingfishers. Ayuthya treated us to the first of many sumptuous lunches and some attractive antiquities before we moved on to Wat Phra Phutthabat Noi and the home of the rather localized Limestone Wren-Babbler. This is a very attractive site, and a keeper for future tours.
As always, we had some wonderful experiences at Khao Yai, particularly a night of spotlighting which turned up a fine list of mammals and birds. 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 on the Burmese border. An early morning visit to Hua Hong Khrai, one of the Queen's projects just north of Chiang Mai, was rewarded with a stunning male Green Peafowl in the morning mist on the lakeside, not to mention great scope views of handsome Black Bazas.
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. As the sun emerged, the mixed-flocks took advantage of the warming rays, and we thrilled to the non stop 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 (with great looks at the striking White-headed Bulbul) in profusion, especially in the vicinity of the jeep track. Two Dark-sided Thrushes, a Lesser Shortwing, and two Siberian Blue Robins at Mr. Deang's were 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: Crested Finchbill, 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: Mountain Bamboo-Partridge, Red-faced Liocichla, White-browed Laughingthrush, and a flock of six Spot-winged Grosbeaks to name but a few. Another undoubted highlight must be mentioned: the locality—those misty mornings with the rugged crags of Burma peeking above the clouds added a special and exciting aura to our birding at Doi Ang Khang.
After the previous year's exploratory morning along the border road to Doi Lang, we were left wanting more, so we assigned an entire day to this delightfully peaceful and magnificently forested site. From morning to late afternoon we reveled in the beauty of Doi Lang's seemingly untarnished and very birdy forests, and the complete lack of any traffic. Some of the highlights here included nesting Crested Finchbills, Black-eared Shrike-Babbler, White-necked Laughingthrushes, Spot-breasted Parrotbills, Orange-flanked Bush-Robin, an all too brief Black-headed Greenfinch, and a fruiting tree full of Chestnut and Eye-browed thrushes.
This year we added a morning at Chiang Saen and a visit to the mighty Mekong River. And what a year it was! Undoubtedly, the highlight for your leaders was Southeast Asia's first Long-tailed Duck, in addition to a good selection of wintering ducks, small pratincoles, and River Lapwing, to mention but a few.
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 the opportunity to study them at length. Tucked away among them were some special treats in the form of an obliging Spoon-billed Sandpiper (our observation was enhanced by the news from Mr. Tee that he had just discovered a flock of 84 wintering on the coast of Burma!), a remarkable flock of 20+ globally-threatened Nordmann's Greenshanks, Great Knot, Long-toed Stints, Broad-billed and a single Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Ruff, Red-necked Phalarope, and Greater Spotted Eagle. We also encountered several rare waterbirds, thanks to the burgeoning Thai birding "hotline," including Black-faced Spoonbill, Painted Stork, Chinese Egret, and the enigmatic and as yet undescribed "White-faced" Plover. The addition of a morning in the notably attractive freshwater marshes of Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park was a joy for all, and we encountered a good selection of species, including two species of jacanas, three species of bitterns, and our first banded leaf monkeys. All in all, a very birdy experience.
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 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, pheasants (if you are lucky), partridges, adorable dusky leaf monkeys, trumpeting elephants, Asian wild dogs, Black-thighed Falconets, and, and, and…yes, the place never runs out of wonderful experiences and things to see.
A very special thanks to all participants for helping make our 2008 Thailand tour the most fun and the most successful ever! Thanks a million from both of us and all at VENT to Steve and Maggie, Mike and Joy, Horton and Brenda, Darryl and Lee-Ann, Bill, Jim, and Terry for being such fine birding and traveling companions.
Of course, the enjoyment of our tour was greatly enhanced by the presence of our friend Mike. His cheerfulness, charm, and professionalism are always very much appreciated. Our drivers Shy, Sam, Sarkhol, and Teerat proved to be indispensable and full of fun. Sarkhol and Teeup's culinary skills ensured that we enjoyed many scrumptious meals in the field amidst beautiful surroundings. Mr. Tee at Khok Kam was very helpful—he's doing a great job for visitors and for conservation at this excellent and important site. We were also generously helped by several birders we bumped into and we would like to extend our thanks to Phil Round, Jon Dunn, Smithsutibut at Chiang Saen Lake, Tony and Dio at Doi Inthanon, and several people, whose names I failed to record, in Khaeng Krachan. It's so good to see so many enthusiastic birders and nature photographers in the field in this marvelous country.