Thailand Highlights Mar 14—Apr 02, 2015

Posted by Dion Hobcroft

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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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It was great to be back in the Kingdom of Thailand, perhaps my favorite touring country in the world. Reunited with Mike and the team, our wonderful ground crew, the participants all enjoyed a smooth arrival. Before we knew it we were on the road and into the fabulous birds. Our first stop was Muang Boran, an area of freshwater ponds and fish farms. It is always very lively here, and we were off to a good start with the Asian Golden Weavers in glowing breeding plumage. Also of note was a Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler that we bailed up in a thin stretch of reeds; it gave an uncharacteristically excellent view. More typical birds included Cotton Pygmy-goose, both Pheasant-tailed and Bronze-winged jacanas, Cinnamon and Yellow bitterns, White-winged Black and Whiskered terns, Black-browed and Oriental reed-warblers, Plain and Yellow-bellied prinias, plus nesting Baya Weaver. At nearby Bang Poo we admired the numerous Brown-headed Gulls and found a few Painted Storks loafing out the back. After lunch at Ayutthaya, we spotted a few birds around one of the ancient temples: Coppersmith Barbet, Asian Koel, and Small Minivet. We stopped for a Spot-billed Pelican on a roadside wetland, a rare bird in Thailand. Our last stop for the day in Saraburi was for the highly localized Limestone Wren-Babbler. Our good luck held when we found three birds tamely foraging below us from our sublime Naga staircase. It had been an excellent first day.

Long-tailed Broadbill

Long-tailed Broadbill— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

Khao Yai National Park is a World Heritage Reserve of evergreen jungles and grasslands. It is always an exciting place to visit and this year was no exception. On our first full day we had a great run with the birds. The first bird we stopped for was a Red-headed Trogon feeding on the road! Whilst looking at this species, we realized a Long-tailed Broadbill was nest-building over our heads. Golden-crowned Myna, Blue-bearded Bee-eater, and Green-eared Barbet were followed by three species of hornbills with superb studies of a perched Great Hornbill truly fabulous. Large Hawk-Cuckoo, Greater Flameback, perched Crested Goshawk, great views of Banded Broadbill, Scarlet Minivet, and Moustached Barbet, not to forget the beautiful male Mugimaki Flycatcher: we were definitely on a roll. After lunch we had the usual hiatus in bird activity. We added birds to the list like Emerald Dove, Blue Rock-Thrush, Barred Cuckoo-dove, and Mountain Imperial-Pigeon. The major highlight of the afternoon came as we enjoyed watching a flock of Brown Needletails drinking water from one of the large ponds, listening to their flickering wing beats. It was made even better when the rare Silver-backed Needletail, a single bird, joined in, and we had the treat of watching this little-known species flying below eye level in direct comparison with its giant relative.

Asian Wild Dogs

Asian Wild Dogs— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next full day of the tour in Khao Yai was truly extraordinary. It started when we found a pack of seven Asian Wild Dogs, often called Dholes. This endangered Canid living mostly in thick forest, hunting deer like Sambar and Muntjac, is rarely encountered. We spent some ten minutes watching the pack before they crossed the road at close range and disappeared into the jungle. Within an hour we were watching a perched male Silver Pheasant wing-whirring in display. Another ten minutes of optical pleasure watching this Oriental sensation. Next a Reticulated Python, more than ten feet long, was located basking and posed for some photographs. We found the nest of a Dark-necked Tailorbird with a chick inside. We could see how the nest had been stitched together with silk, the feature that gives this family of jaunty warblers their name. A walk along a forest trail proved fairly quiet until we found a Siamese Crocodile hauled out on some rocks. This, one of the most endangered of all reptiles, was new for both the leader and Mike! Clouds of butterflies, the great majority stunning swallowtails like Swordtails, Peacocks, and Triangles, took salt from streamside sands. The afternoon session belonged to the Siamese Fireback. We encountered three males and three females; lengthy close views of both sexes of this elusive pheasant feeding by the roadside were just great. In the evening we took a spotlight drive from the back of a pickup truck.  We had sightings of both Buffy Fish-Owl and Large-tailed Nightjar, several close views of Small Indian Civet, and no less than four Malayan Porcupines with their showy black and white quills. On the drive back to the hotel we found another huge Reticulated Python on the road and watched, impressed, as it swiftly moved along.

Reticulated Python

Reticulated Python— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

It was going to be difficult to top a day like yesterday.  We spent three hours birding in Khao Yai before returning to Bangkok for our flight to Chiang Mai. It was another lively session in the forest highlighted by the White-crested Laughingthrush. Several highly animated and vocal flocks broke cover and sang for their supper all around us. Careful scrutiny picked up the Black-throated Laughingthrush, White-browed Scimitar-Babbler, Laced Woodpecker, Black-naped Oriole, and a lovely Silver-breasted Broadbill. The rest of the travel day went like clockwork, a stop for a pair of Chestnut-tailed Starlings being of note, and we also enjoyed a flock of Red-breasted Parakeets. By the evening we were in Chiang Mai in the far north of the Kingdom.

A pre-dawn departure placed us at Huai Hong Khrai. We could hear Green Peafowl sonorously caterwauling as it became light. Unable to find one roosting, we went into the forest and found one bird perched up, but it slipped off its perch and away before everyone saw it. Fortunately we found a further three birds feeding around the wetlands, one of which, a male, went into full display mode. Wow! Quite a few interesting birds were seen as the morning heated up. An Oriental Darter was a good record, allowing a scope view. We also had Black Baza, Green-billed Malkoha, Lineated Barbet, Rosy Minivet, Puff-throated Babbler, Golden-fronted Leafbird, and Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher. After lunch in Chiang Mai we drove to our new hotel at the base of Doi Inthanon. The hotel gardens produced Asian Barred Owlet, Hoopoe, and White-throated Kingfisher. In the late afternoon we headed to the Blossom-headed Parakeet conservation area and were delighted to see some 40 parakeets including quite a few smart males. It was good for a variety of species including excellent views of Barred Button-quail, Green Bee-eater, Indochinese Bushlark, Black-hooded Oriole, Black-collared Starling, and Plain-backed Sparrow. Rasping Chinese Francolins kept well-hidden in the thick scrub.

Rufous-throated Partridge

Rufous-throated Partridge— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

At the summit of Doi Inthanon, some 8,000 feet high, we were dropped into a new world of mossy evergreen montane rainforest dominated by Rhododendrons. Just about every bird species seen in the morning is new for participants, and this year we had a great rush of mega birds. It was fabulous to see the Rufous-throated Partridges back around the summit boardwalk giving sensational views. The White-browed Shortwing, typically a recluse of deep shadows, put on some amazing display performances for the rather mouse-plumaged females. A partridge-sized Eurasian Woodcock probed the bog a few meters from us. Silver-eared Laughingthrush, Chestnut-tailed Minla, Green-tailed Sunbird, Pygmy Cupwing, Ashy Wood-Pigeon, and a host of  birds, mostly passerines, kept the list on the rise.  After this rush, we birded on the Jeep Trail and it was fairly quiet, although we still kept sighting birds fairly consistently including Yunnan Fulvetta, Large Niltava, and the sport’s model Yellow-cheeked Tit. After lunch we opted for a siesta as it was a blue sky day, hot, and the birds had dropped right off. In the afternoon we had success with the elusive Black-tailed Crake, and in the late afternoon we enjoyed both White-capped Water-Redstart and the delightful Slaty-backed Forktail.

White-tailed Robin

White-tailed Robin— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

Our second full day at Doi Inthanon kicked off on the roadside at 5,000 feet asl. It was a great rush of bird sightings, mostly of high quality and in the scope. Besra, Asian Emerald-Cuckoo, Golden-throated Barbet, Gray-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, Gray-chinned and Short-billed minivets, Black-eared Shrike-Babbler, Chestnut-vented Nuthatch, Hume’s Treecreeper, Asian Stubtail, Slaty-bellied Tesia, Chinese Leaf-Warbler, Chestnut-crowned Warbler, Eye-browed Wren-Babbler, Rufous-backed Sibia, Spectacled Barwing, Verditer Flycatcher, Streaked Spiderhunter, and Black-throated Sunbird were amongst the highlights, some 60 species of forest bird in a 500 meter radius of breakfast. Again, after a good afternoon rest in the heat of the day we returned to the field as it cooled down. A walk through some rice fields produced a bunch of both Gray-headed Lapwing and Pin-tailed Snipe. A Red-billed Blue Magpie was a rare sighting in modern Thailand, although it disappeared quickly. We tried our luck in the dry lowlands, and although we had success with the rare Black-backed Forktail, it frustratingly disappeared before the group connected with it. Try again tomorrow!

At dawn we were in the dry teak woodlands and, after a bit of cajoling, three stunning Black-headed Woodpeckers perched up, scarlet rumps fluffed out. We then moved higher up the mountain and explored a different forest trail. It was quite amazing to find a Phayre’s Langur, an endangered leaf-monkey, on this trail. It was very tame, allowing excellent photographs, but the behavior was not typical. A big highlight was the discovery of two pairs of Black-throated Parrotbill. These scarce bamboo specialists are beautifully patterned. The species is proposed as a split from the Himalayan populations and re-named Gray-breasted Parrotbill. Other good sightings made during the morning included Shikra, Rufous-winged and Gray-faced buzzards, Blyth’s Shrike-Babbler, White-throated Fantail, Gray Treepie, Gray-crowned Warbler, and Pale Blue Flycatcher. En route to Doi Ang Khang we made a stop at Doi Chiang Dao. A stretch of the legs at this spectacular location produced Great Iora, Buff-breasted Babbler, and best of all a Streaked Wren-Babbler. We made it through to Doi Ang Khang, enjoying the rugged scenery of this remote location.

Phayre's Leaf-Monkey

Phayre’s Leaf-Monkey— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

It was hard to imagine our day getting off to a better start than finding a Giant Nuthatch feeding close to eye level. What a great break! New birds came thick and fast all day including such megas as Scarlet-faced Liocichla, Crested Finchbill, Spot-winged Grosbeak, Silver-eared Mesia, White-tailed Robin, Hill Blue Flycatcher, White-hooded Bulbul, Orange-bellied Leafbird, Great Barbet, Siberian Blue Robin, Black-breasted Thrush, Green Magpie, and Stripe-breasted Woodpecker. All up we recorded 89 species in the forest on this day. Many participants racked up a bunch of new bird sightings. Also good was a change in the weather with a cool change, swirling mists, and some showers that freshened up the atmosphere and even saw folks diving into their cases for some warm clothes.

The following morning we gave the Rusty-naped Pitta a final chance to show, but it held out on us. The fog was a curtailing factor on bird activity, but gradually we began to kick a few goals. First up was a male Slaty-blue Flycatcher followed by a flock of White-browed Laughingthrushes that came in and out of view through thick fog. Dropping lower we found an excellent Eurasian Wryneck feeding on the ground in a forest clearing, and this was followed by scope views of an immature Slender-billed Oriole. The morning reached its peak when a Spot-breasted Parrotbill was located and gave fabulous looks. We packed up and moved downhill to Thaton spotting a stunning male Pied Harrier on the way. In the afternoon a walk around the agricultural fields turned up a perched Rufous-winged Buzzard. We had excellent views of Red-throated Pipit in breeding plumage, Richard’s Pipit, Bluethroat, a female Pied Harrier, Black-shouldered Kite, and a fly-by Citrine Wagtail. A spectacular monsoonal storm swept in during the evening.

Giant Nuthatch

Giant Nuthatch— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

 

 

 

 

 

Doi Lang is one of the most exciting birding sites in Thailand. Recently the road washed out from Thaton side so we had to make the longer journey via Fang. To be there at dawn we have a chance to see Hume’s Pheasant, and this year we had excellent fortune with this stellar pheasant, watching males and females repeatedly. It is not always like this! Even rarer, we heard of a nesting Hodgson’s Frogmouth and found the male brooding three quite large chicks. Wow, how lucky were this group. Beyond these two exceptional species we had a roll call of excellent sightings: Mountain Bamboo-Partridge, Indian Cuckoo, Crimson-breasted Woodpecker, nesting Large Woodshrike, Black-throated Tit, Aberrant Bush-Warbler, Pallas’s Leaf-warbler, Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-Babbler, Rufous-bellied Niltava, a stunning male Ultramarine Flycatcher, superb Siberian Rubythroat, and Chestnut-bellied Rock-Thrush. We finished the afternoon at the river in Thaton enjoying Wire-tailed Swallow and White-rumped Munia, and being tantalized by recalcitrant Chestnut-capped Babblers that refused to show in windswept elephant grass.

We heard breaking news of a vagrant Wallcreeper, an extraordinary record, so we hatched a plan to twitch this bird the next morning north of Chiang Saen, right on the border of Laos. We arrived at the rather unremarkable roadside rock cuttings and soon the bird was located. It flew right down the rock cutting to land a few meters ahead of us—quite extraordinary. Then we tried to see a young male Firethroat in a nearby grassland reserve, but we had no luck with this, although the Chestnut-capped Babblers did perform. A stop on the Mekong River showed the river level to be particularly high and there were no sand bars or islands for shorebird habitat. A flock of Red Avadavats and a couple of Gray-throated Martins were new for the trip. Our final birding stop for the day was a boat trip on Chiang Saen Lake. It was quite good as we picked up a pair of Ferruginous Ducks, a drake Mallard (rare in Thailand), quite a few Indian Spotbills and Garganey, a drake Eurasian Wigeon, Eastern Marsh Harrier, an Osprey, flocks of Racket-tailed Treepies, and some beautiful Striated Swallows with their burry whistles. After lunch we flew back to Bangkok and prepared for our day in the Gulf of Siam.

Hodgson's Frogmouth

Hodgson’s Frogmouth— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

Shortly after sunrise we were well-positioned at Khok Kham, an area of commercial salt fields and shrimp farms and full of birds. Local expert Mr. Tee was on hand, and he had been keeping tabs on a Spoon-billed Sandpiper. We soon had it in our numerous telescopes (very handy here) and enjoying lengthy views. It was great to compare it with numerous Marsh, Broad-billed, and Curlew sandpipers, Red Knot, Red-necked and Long-toed stints, and Greater and Lesser sand-plovers (including some of the smart atrifrons subspecies) amongst a host of other shorebird species, many completing their moult into colorful breeding plumages. After success with the “Spoony” we tried for the scarce Asian Dowitcher nearby and had luck finding a pair that scoped well, intermittently resting and preening. It was time to head further south to Laem Phak Bia, another great birding destination on the coast of the Gulf of Siam, sort of reminiscent of birding the Texas coast area of Galveston. At an area of freshwater ponds we picked up Spotted Redshank, Temminck’s Stint, Common Snipe, a few loafing Spot-billed Pelicans, and the beautiful Black-capped Kingfisher. After lunch we took the boat trip out to a sand spit and coastal estuary. Our luck was holding; here we had great views of Chinese Egret, Pallas’s Gull, Great and Lesser crested terns, a Gull-billed Tern, the scarce Malaysian Plover, and a beautiful male White-faced Plover in fresh breeding plumage. This bird is currently considered a distinctive subspecies of Kentish Plover breeding in southeast China. It had been a fabulous day and we drove south to Hua Hin.

Hume's Pheasant

Hume’s Pheasant— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our morning birding was focused on the lovely freshwater marshes of Khao Sam Roi Yot, set against a backdrop of jagged karst hills. A boardwalk allows excellent access to the marshes, and a leisurely stroll in the cool start of the day produced lots of birds including nesting Chestnut Munia, numerous Ruddy-breasted Crakes, plenty of Yellow and a couple of Black bitterns, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, lots of Black-browed Reed-Warblers, and a fine adult White-bellied Sea-Eagle. The best was yet to come when we spotted a confiding juvenile Baillon’s Crake. Back at the vans, Rat reported he had seen a Chinese Serow, a rarely observed “goat-antelope,” and it was briefly sighted in the scope before disappearing into the bamboo on the steep limestone cliffs. Whilst trying to relocate it, we observed our first Dusky Langurs, a leaf-monkey with white lips and eye rings.

After a siesta and lunch we headed to Kaeng Krachan National Park, the largest protected forest in southeast Asia. Our first stop proved very quiet, although things picked up when we found a large troop of Stump-tailed Macaques by the roadside. These fearsome looking monkeys are scarce and difficult to bump into. In the late afternoon we went to Ban Songnok, a small guest house where a couple of water features attract birds to drink and bathe. A party of both Lesser and Greater necklaced laughingthrushes arrived and performed well while we were serenaded by constant bursts of song from the White-rumped Shama. Puff-throated Babblers and Brown-cheeked Fulvettas came in for a splash, and just as we were about to leave a pair of Scaly-breasted Partridges came scuttling through, leaf litter flying, giving fab views.

Spoon-billed Sandpiper, female

Spoon-billed Sandpiper, female— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

We would spend the next two days in the Kaeng Krachan National Park. Here we bird from pickup trucks, necessary for their clearance and capability of driving up the steeper sections of dirt road to gain access to the hill forest. Our first day was a cracker. In the first half of the day we birded the lower sections of the park. On the drive in we enjoyed Common Flameback, Blue-bearded Bee-eater, a perched family party of Tickell’s Brown Hornbill, perched female Crested Goshawk, and a perched female Chinese Goshawk that was very tame. At breakfast a fruiting fig attracted a host of small passerines including stunning male Yellow-rumped Flycatcher and Yellow-vented Flowerpecker. Further up the road we walked in to see a pair of White-fronted Scops-owls, one of Asia’s most difficult nocturnal birds. We also spotted Asian Barred Owlet and Brown Boobook, two of Asia’s more common nocturnal birds. Next we were treated to a party of Dusky Broadbills building a voluminous suspended nest next to the road. They were perched ridiculously low down for this normally canopy frequenting species. Whilst enjoying the broadbills, a Banded Woodpecker was sighted working on some ant columns. After lunch we headed into the hills where the major highlight was a superb sighting of a nesting pair of Black and Buff Woodpeckers, a great male Red-headed Trogon, plus fast views of two very shy birds—Ratchet-tailed Treepie and a responsive Blue Pitta that flashed across the road. A thunderstorm developed and we descended out of the park. Just before the exit point we spotted a trio of Kalij Pheasants of the subspecies crawfurdii. Interestingly this bird is sometimes considered a Silver Pheasant.

The following day, the last full day of birding for the tour, was a more sedate affair as we worked harder to squeeze more new birds onto our quite impressive list. Termites were hatching after the previous afternoon thunderstorms, and we found a huge flock of migrant drongos (Hair-crested and White-cheeked Ashy) hoovering up the abundant free protein. Best though was spotting at least two of the rare Crow-billed Drongo perched in the throng. In fact, it was a seven drongo day! A female Banded Kingfisher was scoped beautifully thanks to some good spotting by sharp-eyed Rat. A fruiting fig produced at least ten Yellow-vented Green-Pigeons, yet another difficult bird. A Ratchet-tailed Treepie came past again, this time giving us some warning as it moved higher into the canopy before dashing across. We spent some time working on a drumming male Bamboo Woodpecker that gave good views for some folks—a very timid species. A mixed flock produced the snowy-headed Collared Babbler, a real bamboo specialist as well.

Dusky Broadbill

Dusky Broadbill— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

The birds sort of went quiet after this, although a tame perched Crested Serpent-Eagle was a big hit. At lunch though, we were back into it, two tame Orange-breasted Trogons leading the charge. A male Crimson-winged Woodpecker remained glued to the side of a tree while a Rufous-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher zipped about before perching well for some folks. Green Magpies finally allowed some good views with an Indian Cuckoo and Silver-breasted Broadbill permitting good photographic opportunities. The last bird for the park was the dashing Sultan Tit, one of the world’s great birds. Again, a storm brewed up and curtailed our afternoon activities so we decided to do some birding around the hotel. It was fairly sedate, although Jim placed us onto a pair of beautiful Vinous-breasted Starlings while an Oriental Darter was a good record. In the evening we were serenaded by Indian Thick-knees.

We had a final morning and opted to visit one of the small waterholes used as a photographic hide. The previous thunderstorms made the watering site less attractive than if it had been really dry, although there were no complaints when two groups of Bar-backed Partridges appeared and fed right in front of us.  Red Junglefowl, Scaly-breasted Partridge, both Lesser and Greater necklaced laughingthrushes, Puff-throated Babbler, Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher, and Dark-necked Tailorbird all made appearances, plus a dizzying array of small mammals—Indochinese Ground Squirrel, Himalayan Striped Squirrel, Gray-bellied Squirrel, and Northern Tree Shrew. We had one last hurrah, however, when a very timid Slaty-legged Crake gave two brief views—a very rarely seen forest rail.

The tour concluded in Bangkok and we said farewell to our wonderful team: Rat and Jerd, our professional drivers; Chiep and Sakol, our superb chefs who produced so many wonderful and tasty meals in the forest; and gifted team leader, Mike—always a pleasure to go birding with him. Thanks also to all of the participants who did a great amount of spotting in all directions, plus all of those telescopes. Wow! This was a really fantastic tour, and I cannot wait to go back in 2016.