Thailand Highlights Mar 09—28, 2013

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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Our 2013 Thailand Highlights tour was yet another absolutely fabulous tour to this wonderful country. We recorded 414 species of birds including 12 heard only. Some of the more elusive species we observed so well included Bar-backed and Scaly-breasted partridges, Silver and Hume’s pheasants, Green Peafowl, Painted Stork, Spot-billed Pelican, Black-headed Ibis, Collared Falconet, Black-tailed Crake, Asian Dowitcher,  Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Eurasian Woodcock, Yellow-vented Pigeon, Blossom-headed Parakeet, Malaysian Hawk-Cuckoo, White-fronted Scops-Owl, Red-bearded Bee-eater, Rusty-cheeked Hornbill, Crimson-winged and Black-headed woodpeckers, Banded Broadbill, Rusty-naped Pitta, Burmese Shrike, Giant Nuthatch, Baikal Bush-Warbler, Spot-breasted Parrotbill, Vivid Niltava, Black-breasted Thrush, Spot-breasted Laughingthrush, Spot-throated Babbler, Purple-naped Sunbird, Chestnut-eared Bunting, and Spot-winged Grosbeak, plus Streaked and Asian Golden weavers. We also encountered 28 species of mammals including an unforgettable Sun Bear, some fascinating reptiles and amphibians, and clouds of stunning butterflies. What a great trip!

Plain Prinia

Plain Prinia— Photo: Stephen Zarate


We began birding at Muang Boran Fishponds on the outskirts of southeast Bangkok. This is always a great first stop and we were soon amongst the birds including enjoying excellent views of Lesser Whistling-Duck, Cotton Pygmy-Goose, Indian and Little cormorants, Black and Yellow bitterns, Brahminy Kite, Ruddy-breasted and White-browed crakes, Pheasant-tailed and Bronze-winged jacanas, Oriental Pratincole, a couple of White-winged Black Terns amongst the numerous Whiskered Terns, Himalayan Cuckoo, Plaintive Cuckoo, Asian Koel, Greater Coucal, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Oriental and Black-browed reed-warblers, Striated Grassbird, Yellow-bellied and Plain prinias, and loads of weavers acquiring their golden breeding plumage including our only Asian Golden Weavers of the trip, plus a lone Streaked Weaver.

Heading over to nearby Bang Poo, the tide was perfect and the big highlight was a close view of an Asian Dowitcher amongst the hundreds of Eastern Black-tailed Godwits. Other species of interest here included Golden-bellied Gerygone, Collared and Black-capped kingfishers, lots of Brown-headed Gulls, and our only Eurasian Curlew. Breaking free from Bangkok’s traffic, we enjoyed a short walk to a colony of the scarce Lyle’s Flying Fox before heading to the temples of Ayuthaya, the ancient capital of Siam. At these temples, which are similar to the Khmer designs of Angkor Wat, we added several colorful species to our growing list: Small Minivet, Coppersmith Barbet, Brown-throated Sunbird, and Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker. On the way to Khao Yai National Park, a large concentration of wetland birds turned up an astonishing 30 Spot-billed Pelicans, 150 Painted Storks, and 13 Black-headed Ibis. These three threatened wetland birds are making a recovery now that Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia is afforded better protection. It is great to see these birds returning to Thailand.

Radde's Warbler

Radde’s Warbler— Photo: Stephen Zarate

After a comfortable night and a surprise Italian restaurant for dinner, we were off to Khao Yai National Park for three days of exploring the big jungles that are a feature of this well-protected park. It did not take long for things to heat up when a Great Hornbill flew in and perched obligingly, as Wreathed and Oriental Pied hornbills, Vernal Hanging-Parrot, Crested Goshawk, Crested Serpent-Eagle, Thick-billed Pigeon, Mountain Imperial-Pigeon, Asian Drongo-Cuckoo, Blue-bearded and Chestnut-headed bee-eaters, Moustached and Blue-eared barbets, Laced Woodpecker, Greater Flameback, beautiful nest-building Long-tailed Broadbills, Scarlet Minivet, Green Magpie, Black-crested Bulbul, Radde’s Warbler, stunning Asian Fairy-bluebirds, White-rumped Shama, White-crested Laughingthrush, Golden-crested Myna, and Golden-fronted Leafbird to mention a few kept us on our toes. We finished the day with a great encounter with a family of three White-handed Gibbons eating Lillypilly fruits over our heads after they had serenaded us all morning with their fabulous territorial songs.

The following day started wonderfully with a total of eight Silver Pheasants, including three glamorous males, showing well in the early morning. Red Junglefowl was also in good form, with astonishingly good views of Black-throated Laughingthrush another major highlight. The list kept growing with species like Green-billed Malkoha, Orange-breasted Trogon, Green-eared Barbet, Large-tailed Nightjar, Gray-backed Shrike, Bronzed Drongo, Black-headed Bulbul, Pale-legged Leaf-Warbler, White-browed Scimitar-Babbler, Pin-striped Tit-Babbler, Hill Myna, and Purple-throated Sunbird. We finished the evening with a view of a bull Asian Elephant at a salt lick and a couple of Malaysian Porcupines, while one van was lucky enough to see a bull Gaur early in the morning.

With a final morning in Khao Yai National Park, we worked quite hard to add more sightings and started off with some responsive Abbott’s Babblers. A pair of Banded Broadbills took a lot more persistence, but gave superb views in the end. A Collared Owlet also obliged in the telescope while a beautiful Blue-winged Leafbird and Eastern Crimson Sunbird were well-appreciated. By evening we were in Chiang Mai in northwest Thailand where a whole bunch of new birds awaited.

We were up very early the next morning as we had a hoped for appointment with the Green Peafowl, a threatened species with a very tiny and fragmented distribution. The King’s Project at Huai Hong Khrai was our site, and as dawn glimmered a male could be heard trumpeting. After some running around up and down hill by a nervous leader, we made a breakthrough and watched the male Green Peafowl in the scope as the light improved; this is the closest species there is to the legendary Garuda! New species seen in the morning included Black Baza, White-breasted Waterhen, Asian Barred Owlet, White-throated Kingfisher, Hoopoe, Great Iora, Rosy and Ashy minivets, Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher, Purple Sunbird, Olive-backed Pipit, and White-rumped Munia. Also of interest was a Lesser False Vampire Bat that showed well.

Eurasian Woodcock

Eurasian Woodcock— Photo: Stephen Zarate

Our home for the next three nights was a hotel at the base of Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest mountain. As the temperatures dropped in the afternoon we explored an area of wet rice terraces. This is an excellent birding stop; Gray-headed Lapwing showed beautifully and Mike kicked up a pair of Greater Painted-Snipe and a bunch of Pin-tailed Snipe. Moving to a new site, we scoped Blossom-headed Parakeets in perfect light as they fed on tamarind fruit. Plain-backed Sparrows and a beautiful Indochinese Bushlark rounded out an excellent day.

We made yet another early start and had breakfast at the summit of Doi Inthanon in cool, crisp conditions. Just about every bird was new for the list, as this was our first morning among the Himalayan avifauna. Over the next two days we watched a treasure trove of beautiful species with some of the highlights including Eurasian Woodcock; Black-tailed Crake; Bay Woodpecker; Gray-chinned Minivet; Yellow-cheeked Tit; Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo; Yellow-bellied Fairy-Fantail; Slaty-bellied Tesia; Mountain Tailorbird; Chestnut-vented Nuthatch; Brown-throated Treecreeper; Flavescent and Mountain bulbuls; Buff-barred, Ashy-throated, Pallas’s, and White-tailed Leaf warblers; Snowy-browed and Little Pied flycatchers; Large and Rufous-bellied niltavas; Pale Blue-Flycatcher; White-capped and Plumbeous redstarts; Slaty-backed Forktail; Blue Whistling-Thrush; White-browed Shortwing; Silver-eared Laughingthrush; Pygmy Cupwing; Golden Babbler; Gray-throated Babbler; Silver-eared Mesia; Black-eared Shrike-Babbler; Spectacled Barwing; Rufous-winged Fulvetta; Chestnut-tailed Minla; Rufous-backed and Dark-backed sibias; Gould’s, Green-tailed, and Black-throated sunbirds; and Streaked Spiderhunter.

Black-breasted Thrush

Black-breasted Thrush— Photo: Stephen Zarate

On our final morning in Doi Inthanon we focused on the dry teak woodlands at the base. We had yet another great morning with the major highlight a beautiful pair of Black-headed Woodpeckers. Plenty of other good sightings included Brown Hawk-Owl, Oriental Honey-buzzard, Collared Falconet, Large Hawk-Cuckoo, Lineated Barbet, Gray-capped Pygmy-Woodpecker, Large Woodshrike, Large Cuckooshrike, Black-hooded Oriole, Eurasian Jay, and Black-backed Forktail. We were back on the move again this time heading to the border of Myanmar at Doi Ang Khang. We spent a couple of hours at the spectacular monastery at Doi Chiang Dao. We squeezed a couple of more birds out of the forest here including a Purple-naped Sunbird bathing in a tree hollow while a pair of Black-naped Monarchs put on a spectacular show.

Doi Ang Khang is the site for a handful of birds that sneak over the border from neighboring Myanmar. Again the birding was red hot. Great and Golden-throated barbets; Stripe-breasted Woodpecker; Swinhoe’s, Long-tailed, and Short-billed minivets; Crested Finchbill; Brown-breasted and Black bulbuls; Yellow-streaked Warbler; Spot-breasted Parrotbill; Slaty-backed Flycatcher; Vivid Niltava; Chinese and Hill blue-flycatchers; White-tailed Robin; Black-breasted Thrush; White-browed Laughingthrush; Scarlet-faced Liocichla; Spot-throated Babbler; Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-Babbler; Pygmy Cupwing; Rufous-fronted Babbler; Blyth’s Shrike-Babbler; Blue-winged Minla; Common Rosefinch; Black-headed Greenfinch; and Spot-winged Grosbeak led the charge.

Mike and I were now involved in some birding detective work. In December 2012 the first ever photographs of the rare and highly secretive Spot-breasted Laughingthrush were taken at a mountain called Doi Lang. After some serious navigational challenges and patient searching we found the location. It was simply jaw-dropping to have the Spot-breasted Laughingthrush coming right to our feet, not to mention a pair of Rusty-naped Pittas and a White-gorgeted Flycatcher. On top of this we found a Giant Nuthatch on two occasions (including one feeding on the road!) and had three sightings of Hume’s Pheasant. It was a treasure chest.

Rusty-naped Pitta

Rusty-naped Pitta— Photo: Stephen Zarate


We spent a final morning exploring scrubby fields near Thaton. Birding was again excellent and we had great views of Pied Harrier, Chestnut-capped Babbler, a beautiful Chestnut-eared Bunting, several Eurasian Wrynecks, Bluethroat, a shy Siberian Rubythroat for some, Australasian Bushlark, Dusky Warbler, Gray-breasted Prinia, Black-collared Starling, Red-throated Pipit, Citrine Wagtail, and nesting Baya Weavers. We also explored the Mekong River and Chiang Saen Lake. The lake turned up a vagrant Eurasian Shelduck, while a Baikal Bush-Warbler put on a great performance.

Leaving Bangkok, we arrived in good time at Khok Kham. In an area of commercial salt fields, the hypersaline pools attract impressive numbers of shorebirds, many in advanced breeding plumage at this time of year. Mixed in among the thousands of shorebirds that constantly move from pool to pool was the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper—at least two of them! My good friend Mr. Tee was on hand to navigate us to the best ponds and we had very early success when we found one bird attaining fresh breeding plumage. It allowed a close approach and all the participants could enjoy lengthy scope studies and photographic opportunities. As we were walking out we found the second bird in winter plumage. Also present were Kentish Plover, Greater and Lesser sand-plovers, Pacific Golden-Plover, Marsh Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, Great and Red knots, hundreds of Red-necked Stints, a handful of Long-toed Stints, and Curlew and Broad-billed sandpipers.

Spot-throated Babbler

Spot-throated Babbler— Photo: Stephen Zarate


We continued south to Pak Thale and Lam Pak Bia. These locations right on the Gulf of Siam support globally important concentrations of shorebirds that are under constant threat from mudflat reclamation projects in China and South Korea. It really is not looking good for many species, and the Spoon-billed Sandpiper is the most threatened of all. Probably the best sighting here was a lone Black-faced Spoonbill with 15 Black-headed Ibis. We added more shorebirds to the list including Sanderling, Bar-tailed Godwit, Spotted and Common redshanks, Common Greenshank, Pied Avocet, and Whimbrel. We finished the day with a boat trip to the coast. Here we found the hoped for Malaysian Plover, a single Chinese Egret looking smart in breeding plumage and, after a walk, a single female White-faced Plover. We saw 28 species of shorebirds on this day.

We had a beautiful morning at the freshwater wetlands at Khao Sam Roi Yot, set against a spectacular limestone karst. These wetlands are humming with birds and we lost count of Yellow Bitterns. We did, however, celebrate at least two Cinnamon Bitterns, a superb Manchurian Reed-Warbler, lots of dapper Black-headed Munias, and some shy nest-building Streaked Weavers. After lunch we visited the Pala-U entrance to Kaeng Krachan National Park. It was hot and loaded with school holiday visitors so we retreated back down the road a little. A Forest Wagtail gave a great show and then we did battle with a pair of skulking Spot-necked Babblers that showed for some folks. On the drive out we found a female Elephant by the road!

Kaeng Krachan National Park is the largest protected forest in Southeast Asia. The steep, hilly terrain clothed in thick rainforest and dry monsoon vine thicket is well-protected with few access roads. Its location on the Isthmus of Kra is reflected in the large number of Sundaic birds that reach the northern edge of their distribution here. It is a fantastic place with a massive list of birds, mammals, and other wildlife species. The butterflies are amongst the best in the world.

Sun Bear

Sun Bear— Photo: David Charles

We finished our tour with a bang here. Some of the best birds seen were superb views of Bar-backed and Scaly-breasted partridges, Silver Pheasant (of the distinctive crawfurdii subspecies), Mountain Hawk-Eagle, Little Cuckoo-Dove, Yellow-vented Pigeon, Malaysian Hawk-Cuckoo, White-fronted Scops-Owl, Red-bearded Bee-eater, Rusty-cheeked Hornbill, Crimson-winged Woodpecker, Common Flameback, Silver-breasted Broadbill, Sultan Tit, Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, Siberian Blue Robin, Lesser and Greater Necklaced laughingthrushes, Puff-throated Babbler, Large Scimitar-Babbler, Collared Babbler, and Ruby-cheeked Sunbird. The biggest highlight of the entire tour was one of those purely lucky moments when we came across a Sun Bear that walked across the road in front of us, stopping to look back. What a treat to see this most endangered species so well—just very, very special.

I would like to thank all the participants for making this tour so successful and of course my wonderful team led by Mike who accommodated us so extraordinarily well. I look forward to seeing you all again.