2004 THAILAND TOUR (3-25 January)
by Phil Round
Our Thai tours have followed a similar format and itinerary for a number of years. Even so, each tour is unique, with a few surprises, a few "dips," but always a good range of species. The forest sites we visit lie inside protected areas, so we can rely on the habitat not having disappeared between tours, in welcome contrast to the situation in many other tropical countries. An additional bonus is that some of the shyer and more secretive species are becoming tamer, more habituated to birdwatchers. We see more scarce species as time goes on, not fewer, and can usually rely on obtaining outstanding views of some real treasures that were seldom seen ten or more years ago.
In Khao Yai, one of the star performers was a Coral-billed Ground-Cuckoo, which emerged to feed on a damp patch at the forest margin, close to a campsite. We watched it for a full half-hour. The same site also held a Rufous-tailed Robin (rare this far west and one of only a handful of records for the park), which obliged us by repeatedly visiting, and perching on, a large fallen log until chased off by a Hainan Blue Flycatcher. Both male and female Siberian Blue Robins, and Orange-headed Thrush were among other cooperative ground feeders, but pheasants did not perform for us. Khao Yai can always be relied upon to produce a good range of brightly coloured, middle-sized, arboreal forest birds: in a single day, we reached double figures of one of these, Blue-bearded Bee-eater. Others included Banded Kingfisher, Banded Broadbills, Orange-breasted and Red-headed Trogons, Green Magpies and three species of laughingthrushes. An incredible display of bright red-flowered coral trees, Erythrina, adorned with Golden crested Mynas and flocks of Thick-billed Flowerpeckers, lit up our final morning, when we also enjoyed both Pompadour and Orange-breasted Pigeons among the expected Thick-billed Pigeons. A pair of Oriental Hobbies presided over the scene.
For our lowland day near Bangkok, we visited a "new" shorebird site on the Gulf of Thailand which produced the globally endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper and Black-faced Spoonbill (two individuals of each species). A Long-billed Dowitcher, only the fourth or fifth for Thailand, picked out while scanning through a flock of Great Knots, was more exciting for the leader than for the group, who were perhaps more impressed by an Asian Dowitcher on a neighbouring pond. A first-winter Black-tailed Gull flew past offshore as we were enjoying a seafood lunch at a beachside restaurant, and we rounded the day off with a couple of Greater Spotted Eagles, our third globally threatened species for the day.
Although the northern mountains around Chiang Mai produced their expected diversity of birds, there were somewhat fewer species overall this year, perhaps due to the unusually cool weather, with thick fog on a couple of mornings. Nonetheless, there were plenty of highlights among the many new bulbuls, babblers, flycatchers and warblers that we saw, including Rufous-winged Buzzard, Mountain Hawk-Eagle, Rufous-throated Partridges, Green Peafowl, Black-tailed Crake, White-bellied Woodpecker, Giant Nuthatch, Black-backed Forktail, White-tailed Robin, Slaty-bellied Tesia, Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babbler, Spectacled Barwing, Spot-breasted Parrotbill, Yellow-hooded (Citrine) Wagtail, Red Avadavat and Black-faced Bunting.
Local experts Mr. Tai (our boatman for the mangroves) and Yotin Meekaeo did us proud during our sojourn in the south, their expertise producing Mangrove Pitta and Gurney's Pitta respectively. We were unable to cover the Krabi river mouth, though, due to strong winds and rough water.
Forest birds at Khao Nor Chuchi included Black-bellied, Red-billed and Chestnut-breasted Malkohas, Spotted Wood-Owl, Red-crowned and Red-throated Barbets, Black-and-yellow Broadbill, Dark throated Oriole and Thick-billed Spiderhunter among the various Sundaic bulbul and babbler species. We extended our final day with an evening hike for frogmouths but although we heard both Gould's and Javan, alas, we saw neither. As a bonus, though, we got males of both Green Broadbill and Orange headed Thrush, roosting a few feet above the trail, in our flashlight beams.
2003 THAILAND (4-26 January)
by Phil Round
Gleaming white faces and underparts, and pale ashy upperparts enabled the ready identification of Nordmann's Greenshanks among the Great Knots, Bar-tailed Godwits, Terek Sandpipers and other waders roosting in the area. As our bird-friendly boatman maneuvered his craft to within 15 m. of seven Nordmann's Greenshanks perched on the fish-traps off Krabi river mouth, we studied their distinctive structural features in great detail. This was our second globally threatened shorebird. Much earlier in the tour we had scored with superb and prolonged views of a single Spoon-billed Sandpiper among the Rufous-necked and Long-toed Stints and Broad-billed Sandpipers feeding on coastal salt-pans near Bangkok. These were among the waterfowl highlights of a tour otherwise focused largely on landbirds and forest birds, the latter exemplified by the Black-and-red Broadbills, and Mangrove Pitta seen earlier that same gleaming greenshank morning. A male Gurney's Pitta provided what was perhaps the crowning experience of the entire trip. These were not the usual "brief bounds then gone" glimpses in deep shade that characterize so many pitta sightings, but prolonged views of this feathered jewel feeding in a moist gully, much of the time in full view. With a total moratorium on tape use, so as not to disturb this critically endangered species, careful preparation is essential. We felt privileged to watch this bird from a blind, in the certain knowledge that it was going about its business completely unconcerned about our presence in its territory.
We enjoyed our usual abundance and variety of both resident tropical and Sino-Himalayan birds and Palearctic migrants in the cool forested mountains of the north. At Khao Yai, we "scoped" flocks of green pigeons and Asian Fairy-bluebirds, found a nest of Orange-breasted Trogon; watched a Coral-billed Ground-Cuckoo feeding on a roadside verge in the early morning; taped in a pair of Scaly-breasted Partridges, and studied both Siberian Blue Robin and Orange-headed Thrushes feeding on moist patches near the forest edge. On Doi Inthanon and Doi Ang Khang, shy ground-feeding species included Rufous-throated Partridges, Mountain Bamboo-Partridge, Black-tailed Crake, White-browed Shortwing, Chestnut Thrush, Pygmy Wren-Babbler and Slaty-bellied Tesia. Spectacled Barwings and a host of other montane babblers were frequent, and delighted us due to their often confiding nature. Though we failed to find the hoped-for Hume's Pheasant on Doi Chiang Dao, we were rewarded with superb views of about eight different Giant Nuthatches on that same mountain.
In all, the tour turned in 430 species seen (no leader-only birds were counted) and a further 15 species heard.
THAILAND: January 2002
by Phil Round
As in previous years, the 2002 Thai tour turned in its unique combination of great birds, great food, comfortable accommodation and great service. Some figures? How about 20 species of raptors, five pheasants, four hornbills, nine barbets and 16 woodpeckers for starters! At Khao Yai, our first destination, some birds that, to my mind, stood out during our three-day sojourn included Black Eagle, Siamese Firebacks, Red breasted Parakeets, Coral-billed Ground Cuckoo, Red-headed and Orange-breasted Trogons, Banded Kingfisher, Black-and-buff Woodpecker, Dusky, Banded and Silver breasted Broadbills, and Orange-headed Thrush. Altogether, in fact, a hard-to-surpass range of high-quality, scarce or brightly coloured, forest birds.
Memorable moments included Blue bearded Bee-eater drinking nectar from a flowering tree; a noisy, excited group of at least seven Great Slaty Woodpeckers, both repeated fly-bys, and perched, calling loudly and chasing each other on their way to a presumed communal roost; and a pair of Great Hornbills copulating in a fig tree, to the accompaniment of bill-clashing and a high-pitched keening note (never before heard by this observer).
A non-forest interlude on the expanse of ponds and salt-pans near Bangkok gave us our hoped-for Spoon-billed Sandpiper and a host of other small waders, including Broad billed Sandpiper, Long-toed and Rufous necked Stints before we flew north to Chiang Mai. Our first evening halfway up Doi Inthanon, Thailand's highest mountain, produced superb views of Black-tailed Crake, feeding unconcernedly on a lawn. We were oh-so-close to a calling Hodgson's Frogmouth but, alas, just could not see it. But eight full days birding in Chiang Mai Province, covering four different mountains (and a few lowland bits in between) yielded a superb range of species, nonetheless. From the montane evergreen zone, there was Hume's Pheasant, Giant Nuthatch, White necked Laughingthrush, Spectacled Barwing, Spot-breasted Parrotbill, Dark-sided Thrush, Grey-winged Blackbird, Eyebrowed Thrushes, and, many brightly coloured bulbuls, babblers, warblers and flycatchers. Deciduous woodland in the foothills gave us Green Peafowl, Grey headed Parakeet, Collared Falconet, White bellied Woodpecker, Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch and Black-hooded Oriole.
The tiny fragment of inland forest south of Krabi was, as always, hard work and this year only one of the group glimpsed Gurney's Pitta, our principal target species there, from local birder Yotin Meekaeo's specially prepared blind. Large Wren Babbler and Pin-tailed Parrotfinch provided some consolation, though. In nearby mangroves, once he'd got Brown-winged Kingfisher out of the way, Mr. Tai, our ace boatman-cum-bird-finder, worked so hard to get us a brilliant Mangrove Pitta teed up in a tree. A pair of Black-and-red Broadbills put on a fine showing nearby, while Chinese Egrets and Great Knots were, as expected, to be seen at the river mouth.
This was the second consecutive year in which we have run an extension to Kaeng Krachan and the Phetchaburi coast, though high tides and strong winds prevented us accessing an offshore sand-spit. As before, Kaeng Krachan proved very worthwhile, with Grey Peacock-Pheasant, a superb Oriental Hobby, Yellow-vented Pigeon, Rusty cheeked Hornbill, White-hooded Babbler and Spot-necked Babbler among the stars. Our best birds, though, were the (still rather little-known) White fronted Scops Owl, perched in a daytime roost, and Chinese Leaf Warbler--the first for the park and a significant extension of the known wintering range in Thailand. A pair of Bar-backed Partridges, scuffling in the leaf-litter, would have been our last new bird in the park, had we not been detained by three Crested Jays, a Malaysian species, here at pretty much the northern limit of their range, during our descent to the lowlands.
by Richard W. Hildreth
It was a great trip; I liked every bit of it and was glad to be there. I had spent enough time in Thailand to be interested in the birds and the country. For years I had been thinking about a trip, led by an expert, long enough to really see the birds and most of the important habitats. The trip certainly fulfilled my expectations.
Everything went remarkably smoothly. We got away from the USA without weather or any other problems and arrived in Bangkok on time. I briefly lost two of the people at the airport, but I know my way around that facility and soon rounded them up. We got to the Rama Gardens without difficulty. The Rama Gardens turned out to be a perfect place to stay; close to the airport and with such nice verdant grounds-we found 20 species of birds there, which gave the lads an introduction to some of the more common Thai species. The extra day was well spent. Most of the gang went on a sightseeing/shopping tour which they all enjoyed. I looked up an old friend, a beautiful Thai lady, and had dinner with her at a very nice place in the Mangrove along the river. We met Phil and headed out for the birding on Monday. We hardly stopped to catch a breath for the rest of the trip. Asian Trails and all their people did a great job. For example, we flew from Phuket (leaving about midday) to Bangkok. The van drivers drove all the way back to Bangkok and met us the next morning at 0800 ready to head off to Kaeng Krachan.
Phil was really impressive. He is a different kind of leader than many of the lads had ever seen. Most of the familiar tour leaders are very assertive types quick to pronounce on the ID of every bird, quick to comment on every situation. Phil is, of course, very "understated." He just quietly keeps hearing, locating and showing the birds. He kept the pace going with long hours, lots of hiking and hard work (sometimes a bit harder than was comfortable for some) but he kept producing the birds, which all agreed made it worth it. I think we did very well with the birds. The group as a whole had ~489 species of birds [not including the probably 4 species of Golden-spectacled Warblers, etc.]. I personally saw (good solid views) 441 species, 301 of which were new for me in Thailand. We had wonderful close views of many of the great forest birds. The shorebirding also turned out very well; some saw the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. We had great close views of things like Nordman's Greenshank and Great Knot to the delight of the fanatic photographers. Most amazing (and unexpected to me) was that the entire group got to see Gurney's Pitta, a tribute to Phil's skill and hard work. I personally got to see well, four pitta species.
The last day was an example of why the trip was so special and Phil such a talented and really considerate leader. The night before that last day was spent at the country club near Kaeng Krachan NP. The choice of activities on the morning of the last day were another early "death march" into the forest with the chance to possibly find a few more life birds or a short boat trip into the Gulf of Thailand. Phil sensed that the lads were tired and not "up to" another morning in the forest. We got up at 0400, had breakfast and headed for the coast. We did a bit of birding en-route. We loaded into a fishing boat (smoothly arranged by Phil without prior planning) and chugged out through the mangrove to a small sandbar island just offshore in the Gulf of Thailand. There we landed and had very close views (in great light, which got the photographers really excited) of Malaysian Plover (right beside Kentish Plover), Great Crested Tern, Russian Gull, Great Gull, etc. A big flock of Great Knot came in to give us a fine view. We returned to shore and visited a mangrove research station with an impressive board walk through a rather large mangrove. There we saw the Yellow-breasted Gerygone, but could not really see the Mangrove Whistler.
Box lunches had been loaded early in the morning for our noontime meal, but after a hot, very busy morning of birding, Phil decided to take the group to a restaurant for lunch. We drove to a nearby open-air place right on the Gulf of Thailand (with a wonderful cool breeze off the sea). We had a very nice leisurely lunch of Thai food and a couple of beers for those inclined, before we headed for Bangkok. En-route we found a final bird for the trip list, an Eastern Marsh-Harrier.
2001 THAILAND TOUR
by Phil Round
Five peasants (Siamese Fireback, Silver, Kalij*, Grey Peacock-Pheasant and Green Peafowl); six out of seven Thai broadbills; five species of pittas including Gurney's; Green Cochoa, and much else. It was an extraordinary tour, even by our standards. Our usual localities turned up trumps, but the species total this year was helped by the five-day extension we ran to Kaeng Krachan National Park-a 3,000 square km. expanse of moist forest in rugged terrain extending to the Burmese border, 150 km. SW of Bangkok. Among the many scarcer species seen here were Blue-spectacled Pigeon, White-hooded Babbler and Spot-necked Babbler, while Khao Yai, in addition to the first two of the four pheasants mentioned above, produced Oriental Hobby, Great Slaty Woodpecker, some large flights of Wreathed and Great Hornbills and Blue Pitta among other birds. The northern mountains, Doi Pui, Doi Inthanon, Doi Chiang Dao and Doi Ang Khang produced their expectedly large species total, including Mountain Bamboo Partridge, Giant Nuthatch, Fire-capped Tit, Spot-breasted Parrotbill and much else. Our sojourn in the south, besides Gurney's Pitta, added Malaysian Honeyguide and Hooded Pitta among the forest birds; and Chinese Egrets, Nordmann's Greenshank and Brown-winged Kingfishers among other birds on the coast.
This year's tour was distinguished not only by the high species total but also by some extraordinarily close and prolonged views of forest birds which enabled the photographers among us to get some good flash photographs (Orange-breasted Trogon and Banded Kingfisher stand out as two of the gaudier, medium-sized forest birds which posed like fashion models)! We saw some good mammals, too. Looking for nightbirds in Khao Yai we saw two Red Giant Flying Squirrels and a Slow Loris. Later, while watching Silver Pheasants feeding at the roadside, we were treated to views of a male Pileated Gibbon in the trees overhead. Another large, fuzzy black lump in a tree was revealed as a Binturong or bear-cat, one of the larger and more arboreal civets, which finally condescended to stir itself in the morning sunshine, and lumber along a tree limb.
By the final day of the tour, at Kaeng Krachan, I judged there was little else in the way of forest birds that we could realistically expect to add in the time left to us, so we made an unscheduled visit to the coast, taking a boat out to the tip of a remote, 4 km. long, sandspit. Here a flock of 31 Russian (Heuglin's) Gulls, one Great Gull, a flock of 30-odd Great Crested Terns and 13 Malaysian Plovers, was followed by a seafood lunch in an idyllic beachside restaurant.
*The Kalij Pheasants in Kaeng Krachan are of the race crawfurdii,
one of three races occurring in eastern Burma and the western margin of Thailand.
It has been variously placed either with Kalij or Silver (as in Craig Robson's
recent field guide). Yet they show very distinct differences in habitat and
plumage from "typical" Silvers found elsewhere in N. Thailand and
Indochina. If true Kalij Pheasants are restricted to areas west of the Irrawaddy,
as recent authors have suggested, this begs the question whether the distinctive
pheasants in western Thailand are an as yet recognized full species.
by Phil Round
Our first full day in the field, in Khao Yai National park, had started less than auspiciously, with unseasonal drizzly and wet weather. This didn't seem to dampen the ardor of the forest birds however, with flocks of Brown-rumped Minivets and a good variety of other smaller forest birds--bulbuls, leafbirds, drongos, flycatchers and flowerpeckers. Nor did it in any way dampen our spirits, thanks especially to the party of Siamese Firebacks, 2 males and 2 females, which strode out to feed within a few meters, on the grassy verge between the forest margin and the park road on which we stood. Better than outstanding views of this normally shy and globally threatened species! Improved protection from hunting around the park headquarters means that Siamese Firebacks in Khao Yai are becoming as habituated as the Crested Firebacks in Malaysia's Taman Negara National park have long been. It makes Khao Yai a good place to see this, and a variety of other species which are scarce or reduced elsewhere in their SE Asian ranges, such as Great Hornbills, of which we also had superb and prolonged views.
Happily, the usual dry season conditions prevailed throughout the entire remainder of the tour. Other great moments at Khao Yai included prolonged views at close range of one of my all-time favorites, male White-throated Rock-Thrush. (In my book, a doubly good bird not only because of its gorgeous and intricately marked plumage, but because it is a long distance migrant, breeding in NE Asia and wintering in eastern Thailand and Indochina).
Among the highlights from the mountains of the north were Giant Nutchatches in the towering pine trees on Doi Chiang Dao, Rusty-cheeked Scimitar babblers, Red-faced Liocichlas, Spot-breasted Parrotbills and Buff-throated Warblers feeding on the open, scrubby, sunlit eastern slopes of Doi Angkhang. Another (more tricky) parrotbill on Doi Ang Khang, Lesser Rufous-headed Parrotbill, responded to my tape, but only by flying above our heads from the top of one towering column of vegetation to another, a less than satisfactory performance! It is unusual to see singletons of these social, but always highly elusive, birds. A very full day on Doi Ang Khang was rounded off satisfactorily when, at Marian Cressman's suggestion, before leaving the mountain that evening, we returned to our liocichla/ parrotbill hotspots of that morning and were rewarded with superb views of 5 Mountain Bamboo-Partridges feeding on the bare earth of a small open paddock ringed by ferns and scrub.
Doi Inthanon produced its usual haul of moist forest species, including White-bellied Pigeon, Dark-sided Thrush, White-gorgeted Flycatchers, Slaty-bellied and Chestnut-headed Tesias, White-necked Laughingthrush and--a real bonus--Spot-winged Grosbeaks basking in the evening sunshine.
Our short sojourn on the scenic Andaman coast of the far south produced the expected Nordmann's Greenshank, Great Knot and Brown-winged Kingfishers a short distance from our hotel in Krabi, and a good variety of Malaysian forest birds further afield, at Ban Nai Chong and Khao Nor Chuchi. We split into two smaller parties to work for the highly endangered Gurney's Pitta, which is now becoming very difficult to see. Unfortunately, our best efforts were frustrated, and the closest we got was when one part of the group heard a calling bird.
Quite apart from the 423 (381 seen, plus 42 heard only) bird species recorded on the tour, there were some significant mammals and "other beasts": great views of White-handed Gibbons, Black Giant Squirrels, Smooth Otters and--in the hand--Five-banded Flying Lizard--a new vertebrate species for Khao Nor Chuchi.