Thailand Highlights Feb 23—Mar 14, 2010

Posted by Dion Hobcroft


Dion Hobcroft

Dion Hobcroft has been working for VENT since 2001. He has led many tours (more than 170) to Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, Bhutan, Indonesia, India, China, Southwest ...

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Thailand is a wonderful country, with fantastic birding and wildlife, superb food, and an excellent infrastructure. David Bishop and I took great pleasure in showcasing this country, which is a perfect "first visit" destination for those keen to experience Oriental birding. Our Thailand Highlights tour can also be taken in combination with our tours to Cambodia and Vietnam.

Leaving the very comfortable Novotel Suvarnabhumi in our wake, we made our way to the ancient capital of Siam called Ayuthya. We were quickly enjoying some great sightings, with Green-billed Malkoha, Collared Kingfisher, and Black-capped Kingfisher amongst the highlights. We made a detour to see a colony of restless Lyle's flying-foxes, and after lunch we explored the ruins of the ancient city. More luck followed with fine daytime views of an Eastern Barn Owl and colorful Small Minivets at the nest. We also enjoyed Javan Pond-Heron and Red-throated Pipit, both in full breeding plumage.

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, Long-tailed Broadbill building a nest, White-crested Laughingthrush, and a flock of ten Pin-tailed Parrotfinches feeding on seeding bamboo. Great views of smooth otter and a reticulated python crossing the road at night were also not to be forgotten!

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 great views. White-browed Piculet, Hainan Blue-Flycatcher, and a northern treeshrew kept us on our toes, while an Oriental Darter was a most unusual and encouraging sighting. Then it was time to head to Doi Inthanon, the highest mountain in Thailand. A quick stop en route at Mae Hia produced a wonderful dark morph Booted Eagle and a fine Burmese Shrike.

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, Orange-flanked Bush-Robin, White-browed Shortwing, Snowy-browed Flycatcher, Chestnut-tailed Minla, Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush, and Green-tailed Sunbird. The Jeep Trail produced a holy grail when a male Purple Cochoa popped up twice, though it was not in the mood to hang around. Great views of a number of forest skulkers followed, including an unforgettable pair of Black-tailed Crakes, Chestnut and Gray-sided thrushes, and Slaty-bellied Tesia, punctuated with showy songsters like Rufous-backed Sibia, or glowing sprites like Mrs. Gould's Sunbird.

We enjoyed excellent success in the dry teak woodlands at the base of Doi Inthanon. Collared Falconet is always welcome, but David and I were both absolutely delighted with scope views of both Black-headed and White-bellied woodpeckers, a female Silver Oriole, Yellow-footed Pigeon, and White-hooded Bulbul. Our success continued in an easily accessible area of traditional rice cultivation. Our focus was Gray-headed Lapwing and these produced wonderful views, but four Greater Painted Snipe and a superb view of the highly elusive Blue-breasted Quail were something else.

Doi Ang Khang, further north and west bordering Burma, was our next port of call. This area always offers wonderful birding, with border specialties like Red-faced Liocichla, Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-Babbler, Spot-breasted Parrotbill, Little Bunting, White-capped Redstart, Rufous-bellied Niltava, and Black-breasted Thrush all making an appearance.

We dropped down into the valley at Thaton and spent a warm afternoon wandering through the fields. Oriental Pratincoles gave us great views, while a terrific male Pied Harrier showed us why it is one of the electrifying raptors of the world. Our final great ascent was to the rarely visited Doi Lang. This is the only site in Thailand for a handful of birds, and we enjoyed getting up-close and personal with Black-throated Tit and Whiskered Yuhina, while David nearly collided with a covey of the shy Mountain Bamboo-Partridge.

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. A bit late in the season, many ducks had already departed, but we had fine views of Spot-billed Duck and Ferruginous Pochard followed by a vagrant Black-faced Spoonbill. The Mekong River was at a historically low level as drought gripped its headwaters in China. Small Pratincole, Citrine Wagtail, and Temminck's Stint were on offer.

Flying south, it was time for one of the great birding days of the world—exploring the Gulf of Siam with shorebird guru Mr. Tee. While enjoying the spectacle of hundreds of Great Knots and Lesser Sand-Plovers mixed in with dozens of Broad-billed Sandpipers and a sprinkling of Long-toed Stints, Tee phoned through the news of a Spoon-billed Sandpiper. Off we went, and we were soon enjoying great views of one mingled in with hundreds of Red-necked Stints. Tragically, this bird is well on its way to extinction, its population halving almost every breeding season. South to Pak Thale where a Greater Flamingo, a presumed escapee, had us scratching our heads, while more rare birds followed with yet another Black-faced Spoonbill, Eurasian Avocet, Red-necked Phalarope, and Ruff. We finished our day at Laem Pak Bia, taking the boat to the sand spit. Here a fine Great Black-headed Gull, Chinese Egret, and Malayan Plover were all welcome, but the sighting of a superb male White-faced Plover finished the day with a bang.

Many folks opted for a sleep-in at the luxurious hotel in Hua Hin. The rest of us traveled 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. For me though, an outstanding view of the rare Manchurian Reed-Warbler was the highlight.

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, and you never quite know what to expect. Our first morning started with a rush: Greater and Lesser Necklaced laughingthrushes in a mixed flock with luminous Green Magpie, Greater Yellownape, Chestnut-breasted Malkoha, Forest Wagtail, Black Bittern in the middle of the stream, Scaly-breasted Partridge scuffling in the leaf litter on the road followed by a luminous Blue Pitta male and three species of broadbill, Silver Pheasant of the darker subspecies lineata, an elephant roaring, and an explosive encounter with a troop of the scarce stump-tailed macaque.

Our next day began more quietly, but finished with an incredible amount of bird activity including superb views of four Tickell's Brown Hornbills, Banded Broadbill, Swinhoe's Minivet, Buff-rumped Woodpecker, and Great Iora; we even put some slit-faced bats in the telescope. The wonderful singing of white-handed gibbons had been a background for our forest birding in the south. It was a fitting finale when a trio of white-handed gibbons, including a mother with infant, came over our group and relaxed in our presence. Wild Thailand is a must-visit destination.