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It had been 5 years since we had last covered a South-east Asian birding destination (Peninsula Malaysia), and so felt the time was ripe for a return visit. Thailand looked good, and I had been interested in some of the tours offered by the Birdingpal Tours web site (www.birdingpaltours.com), and in particular the Wild Bird Eco group (www.wildbirdeco.net) which had some juicy itineraries on offer. First and foremost, they worked on an individual, tailor made basis, which meant none of the dreaded group tours, with mixed bags of birders you hadn't met before, and at a more than acceptable price. Second, one tour held our attention more than others, being only a week in duration, and having minimal travel. This had the enigmatic Spoon-billed Sandpiper at its heart, and was centred in the small Central Thailand area which encompassed Bangkok. This would also result in minimal airfare costs to the capital, and minimal travel from the airport to the locations.
Thus it was that we booked Qatar Airways flights from Manchester to Bangkok, via Doha, the flight times of each whole journey being 12-14 hours depending on the direction of travel. I have to big it up for the airline, which had an excellent service overall, and the additional niceties of decent food and a vast AV entertainment system on offer. Our flights were also very birding friendly since we landed at 7am on the first morning, and left at 8.30pm on the last day, which squeezed in an extra 2 half day birding sessions. We were met at the airport by our guide, Pank, with driver, in a mini van with more than enough space for the three of us, luggage, and extra luxury items such as water in huge ice boxes. We were joined on the third day by a second guide, Tui, both of whom stayed with us for the rest of the trip. The price of the package (40000 Baht total for three) included all meals and accommodation (all we needed to pay for as extras was the cost of the photography hides at Kaeng Krachan which we asked for as extras, and which are payable to the private owners of the land).
Timing and weather
For the main breeding season, and therefore best chance of locating many of the species, April to early June are supposed to be the best months. We chose February to heighten the chances of catching up with Spoon-billed Sandpiper and Nordmann's Greenshank, both of which start to leave during March. The monsoon season is reported to be from July until October. We had almost continuous dry weather, broken only by an hour or so of rain one afternoon. Despite still being in the Winter, even night time temperatures were still at least mild, and hot during the day (thermometer read 28oC during the day at Khao Yai). The main threat from insects was of leeches and ticks at Khao Yai, meaning leech socks were recommended. Occasional mosquitoes were seen and heard, but small biting insects were worth diverting with bug spray around Kaeng Krachan.
Laem Pak Bia ( http://www.thaibirding.com/locations/central/lpb.htm )
This large area lies to the South-west of Bangkok (about 2 hours drive) and nestles against the shores of the Gulf of Thailand. It consists of a mix of salt pans, mudflats, mangroves, and beach with sand spit. We visited various different types of habitat while there, including the salt pans, mangroves, lagoons, and an area of scrub near to Petchaburi. Prime visiting location is Pakthale, which is a well signed collection of salt farms, which were actively worked during our visit, and is the best know spot for Spoon-billed Sandpiper, as well as various other species of wader. Access is thanks to the permission of the private owners, and they will allow driving and walking on the dirt tracks separating the pools. This location apparently does not charge for visiting. It is also worth visiting some of the lagoons 10 minutes or so to the South, where we picked up Nordmann’s Greenshank.
The Environmental Research and Development Project (titled Laem Pak Bia in the following text and list) is an area of remnant mangroves and settling pools. The latter allow a car to be driven alongside the pools, and so can elicit good views of the birds present. It is worth being here at dusk to watch the Flying-foxes flying overhead for their nightly feast. The mangroves do not cover a huge area, but can give good views of the exposed mud at low tide if the boardwalks are followed.
Our accommodation was at the Royal Diamond Hotel in Petchaburi (http://www.royaldiamondhotel.com). We only stayed here for one night, and the hotel was more than reasonably clean and comfortable. It was in the town centre, which wasn't in the least bit noisy at our location. As with all three of our stops, wifi didn't seem to be readily available, but there was a mobile phone signal and electricity plugs in the room (taking both European and US style adapters). Also as with the others, there was hot water in the shower, despite being informed that one of the stops would only have cold!
Kaeng Krachan National Park (http://www.thaibirding.com/locations/west/kk.htm)
This location, as with Laem Pak Bia, is also in Petchaburi province, situated directly to the West. It is one of the largest remaining stretches of forest in Southeast Asia, and joins on to a further tract in adjoining Myanmar. It consists mainly of evergreen species, but with some deciduous mixed in. It is reputed to be best away from the bustle of the weekend, although we didn’t have too much of a problem with humanity during our weekend visit. The park serves as a confluence of the edges of ranges of many species. There is an opening and closing time for the park – 5.30am to 7.00pm, and it is worth noting that elephants can be a road hazard at the latter part of the day! The tracks within the park can be dusty, bumpy, and narrow, so a 4 wheel drive may be a better option than town car. While we were at the park, we hired some photographic hides, which are outside of the park and owned privately (200 Bahts per person per visit). These are mesh camouflaged blinds centred around a clearing in the forest, with bathing pools provided for the birds, and are a must for close encounters, with some species only being seen here.
We stayed for three nights at Samarn Bird Camp (http://www.samarnbirdcamp.com). This is an excellent location to stay, being only a few hundred metres from the entrance gate to the national park. Mr Samarn, the owner, acts as the driver and bird locator for the park, and has even provided his own hide with small pool at the back of the property – definitely worth a visit either early morning or late afternoon. Mr Samarn also takes over the driving in his open back truck for visits to the park, where the van would find some of the rough tracks a little hard going. He seems to have a good grasp of where the key birds are located in the area, although the two guides also accompanied us each time. The rooms again are fairly basic, but more than adequate, with an open shower room/toilet. We had what appeared to be the cheapest rooms, the Garden View rooms, and they were very acceptable. The lodge is placed next to a tract of forest, with well kept and inviting gardens, and some interesting habitat with pools and scrub showing good potential on the doorstep. Meals are home cooked and delicious (as was all the Thai food throughout) and taken on the open air meal area which doubled as the reception – ask for the curry for breakfast rather than the eggs and sausage usually provided to Western guests!
Khao Yai National Park (http://www.thaibirding.com/locations/north_east/ky.htm)
This is a little trek from the other two locations, situated to the North-east of Bangkok, which meant about 6 hours drive from Kaeng Krachan. However, this also puts it on the correct side of the capital city for the airport! It was the first, and is still one of the largest, national parks in the country. It is dominated by evergreen forest at various altitudes, and has an extensive trail system, as well as tarmac roads, in many parts. In between the forest tracts are open areas of grassland, which present a different variety of birds, and the air force checkpoint, which is at a higher altitude than the rest of the park, and worth a visit early morning. The down side of such a place is that weekends are apparently even busier than at Kaeng Krachan, and we were also warned of the preponderance of leeches and ticks.
The main reception for the park is 31km from the entrance barrier, and this area also seems to the focal point for the accommodation. Small collections of various types are dotted around here, from campgrounds to blocks to individual buildings. We again had a basic pair of rooms on one of the blocks, a few of which were set around some well kept lawns, surrounded by the forest. The inside of ours consisted of a large reception type of room with chairs, TV and fridge, and 5 stairs leading to two double rooms, both with their own shower and toilet. I believe that exiting from this accommodation area is only allowed between certain day time hours. We used a nearby restaurant for our evening meal, which was close by and more of a shack than full eatery. Breakfast was in our own reception room, and came from a loaf of bread brought in by the guides, with a stop for lunch at one of the four buffet kiosks at the main reception.
Day 1 - Laem Pak Bia
The flight landed early, giving us in theory even more time to begin birding on our first morning. Even passing Zebra Doves and Common Mynas as we approached the van, with Asian Palm Swifts overhead, seemed the portent of a good start. This didn't take the health of the relatively new engine into account, however, and it was probably a defective air filter that landed us in a garage for over an hour while we waited for the replacement van. Making the best of a bad situation, and with the noise of the busy traffic as a backdrop, we strode around the forecourt for our tenure, and picked up one or two common local specialities, such as Brown Shrike, Red Collared Dove, and Yellow-vented Bulbul. We dragged ourselves away to be taken to a temple area on the banks of the river, where various terns, mainly Black-naped, passed by. The river is fairly wide here, and shows a constant flow of maritime traffic, with noisy berths on the quays. The couple of temples we looked around were just set back from this, with one in particular the home for a small colony of Germain's Swiftlets. Clinging to the walls of the interior of the building like limpets, some vulnerable birds had fallen into the care of one of the staff. The tiny area of trees in front of the temples held common fayre. Perhaps most exciting of the birds around here were a noisy group of 5 Collared Kingfishers rampaging along the docks a little further up, near to the restaurant we would return to later for lunch.
A short drive following the river found the Environmental Research and Development Project. This holds one of the numerous open collections of lagoons, a reasonable sized area of mangroves, and a tidal flat area which holds a large expanse of exposed mud. Most obvious life were the HUGE Mudskippers, many of which were at least 30cm long. Many of these found favour with the dining Black-capped & Collared Kingfishers. Pied Fantails were obvious by sound and sight in the mangroves themselves, but it was a small group of Golden-bellied Gerygones which sang and played near to the reception. The exposed mud at low tide held by far the most birds, the main problem being that they were some distance away. It was tempting to identify some of the waders at this distance, but we refrained and called out sandplovers, Eastern Curlew, and the obvious Javan Pond Herons amongst others. A single Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker was an easy ID being not far from the jetty where we stood.
After lunch, we plyed the hour or so further south-west to the town of Petchaburi, where the van pulled up alongside a rather grandish looking establishment, although not for us the comfort therein, since we were going to spend some time wandering the open area of dryish scrubby fields bisected by the drive/track. Oriental Skylarks and Paddyfield Pipits were intially the most obvious sight and sound here, but the few ponds on the fields held some interesting waders. They were also a little damp, so muddied up our walking shoes no bother. Most interesting birds here were Oriental Pratincoles, which kept their distance, a handful of Long-toed Stints, and a few Long-billed Plovers. The whole area is obviously a grazing area for the scrawny cattle which we saw, and they had churned up even the drier areas at some time to make the walking interesting.
Last stop was to be a very interesting hour or so at the nearby open lagoons. A permit had to be negotiated to gain entrance, but the initial sight of the late afternoon sun highlighting a sizeable gathering of Brown-headed Gulls and lesser numbers of Black-winged Stilts was impressive. We spent much of the time up until dusk scouring a 50 metre section of track, where there were good shows put on by a trio of Pied Fantails, good numbers of White-vented & Pied Mynas, and White-shouldered Starlings, and a host of waders on the lagoons. The action only increased as the sun slinked away. Good numbers of Black Drongos kept appearing from behind us, and collected along one of the lagoon tracks. The starlings and mynas continued to play in the weakening light, and a pair of Plain Prinas were unearthed near to the bushes. The last show of the day was equally impressive, dealt by the sight of hundreds of flying foxes leaving their daytime roosts and passing overhead.
Day 2 - Pakthale
While we don't usually have target lists or even target species on our trips, even we had to admit that not seeing one of the most iconic birds in the world that is Spoon-billed Sandpiper would have been a travesty. Even after travelling around the area for a couple of days, it was plainly evident that salt lagoons are abundant. So it seems strange that one of the best sites to look for these enigmatic birds is on a small section of one of these collections of lagoons at Pakthale. There is even a clear sign for the location with a sketch of the bird at the roadside entrance, with the lagoons themselves being very much worked as we visited. A couple of birders were already at the bank bisecting lagoons when we arrived, with one over excitedly explaining that a bird had been found only 30 seconds after their arrival. The salt lagoons are wader city, with Sandplovers, mainly Lesser, being in their thousands. A smaller collection of these held feeding Little Stints, and our first Spoon-billed Sandpiper. Further inspection found at least 2 more, all on the same lagoon. The vast majority of the sandplovers were in winter plumage, but the odd Greater were in almost full breeding plumage. It was later on that we also found some Broad-billed Sandpipers, again amongst the same group of waders.
The lagoon behind us held the greater numbers of Sandplovers, and they were added to after an hour by an incoming group of Great Knot, again all in non breeding plumage. To the other side of the central lagoon, and in the distance was a huge collection of Eastern Curlews, with bills even longer than expected. The standing waders went up as one a few times, but it was only finally that the culprit was seen to be a Peregrine.
A short drive of ten minutes or so and we were at - yet more lagoons. This time the quarry was another of the wintering speciality waders - Nordmann's Greenshank. We drove along the rough track bisecting the new salt pan lagoons, passing a large group of Brown-headed Gulls which held a few Caspian Terns. Our destination was at the far end of the track, where we parked up, and skimmed a wader collection in the distance. Our guide called out Nordmann's, but the distance was too great for the untrained eye to be sure of the diagnosis. The flock was on the next but one lagoon, so we made our way to the spit between the two, just as a new group of Greenshank landed - definite Nordmann's! There were also bonus points on offer for digging out the odd Asiatic Dowitchers here, with one next to a Black-tailed Godwit, showing off the obvious differences in size between the two. As we made our way back to where the van was parked, and past a few flitting Plain Prinias, a few large groups of Grey Plover flew over, showing off their obvious black axillary patches. The bushes around the small wooden shack next to the van held a few more moments of interest, with a Collared Kingfisher hiding in the depths of the vegetation, and what was likely to be an Oriental Reed Warbler calling occasionally, but proving all but too elusive for anything other than brief glimpses.
Before leaving the area, we diverted along a dirt track, where a couple of Plain-backed Sparrows flew from an adjacent fence. Black Drongos and numerous Asian Pied Mynas predominated, but star prize had to go to the fearless Green Bee-eaters, which not only allowed us to almost tickle their chins, but one flew underneath my tripod - with me still attached to it!
Kaeng Krachan reception area
It was now time to leave the wetlands (and the noise of traffic and humanity) to drive the hour and a half or so to the nature reserve of Kaeng Krachan. The area we covered until late in the afternoon was around the main reception, this being a cultivated patch overlooking what is highly likely to be a manmade lake. We were greeted immediately on alighting from the van by calling Lineated Barbets, one of which was quickly located at the top of a tree. Their smaller cousins, Coppersmith, were not too far away, with three chasing in a fruit tree. What was probably one of these fellows was seen to be exiting a tree hole nearby. Bulbuls in the form of Black-crested & Streak-eared were both noisy and gregarious, in stark contrast to the lone Taiga & Asian Brown flycatchers. We walked this lawned area for an hour or so, and broke off up a slight hill before leaving - a good move judging by the Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Ashy Woodswallows, and almost touchable Banded Bay Cuckoo which flew in.
The reason for leaving was to get to our lodge for the next few nights - Samarn Bird Camp also doubles as a birder's base, and we had barely laid down the luggage before a new guide, Tui, escorted us proudly to the hide and small pools just behind the buildings in the forest. Despite the fading light, we enjoyed the platter on offer, with regular visits from Abbott's & Puff-throated Babblers, White-rumped Shamas, and a Siberian Blue Robin. The delicious evening meal should have ended the birding day, but it was insisted that we cover the couple of hundred of metres or so of road outside of the lodge, taking in a few Long-tailed and single of Indian Nightjar. We did this by driving slowly along the road, lamping along the way. The tops of the telegraph poles seemed to be the favoured initial perch, with some also feeding from the wires between.
Day 3 - Kaeng Krachan small pools
Order of the evening before was to be at breakfast for 6am, leave in the van at 6.30, which became 6.45, and then sit on our backsides for the whole of the morning. Welcome to the world of lazy birding. We drove about 15 minutes to be deposited in a hide at a "birding centre" on the edge of the forest, where a small clearing had been excavated, with two small pools and what was possibly a lashing of bird food on the floor. The promise had been the presence of Silver Pheasant (which didn't turn up) and Green-legged Partridge (which did turn up) at 7am promptly. They obviously didn't check their timepieces, since the latter appeared after about an hour. This could not detract from the excellent birds which did show through the portals in the camouflaged netting. Most obvious and common were the two species of Necklaced Laughingthrushes, which came and went noisily and regularly, and various Bulbuls in the form of Black-crested, Streak-eared & Stripe-throated. Perhaps the star of the show was the male of a pair of Siberian Blue Robins, not just for the colours, but also the general shape and behaviour. Flycatchers were thin on the ground, apart from a pair of Tickell's Blue & single Taiga. Most cheeky bird had to be a male White-rumped Shama, which not only sang from a few metres away, and almost in the back of the open hide, but even flew past my ear and through the slit in the hide. Surprise appearance must surely have been a Slaty-legged Crake, which is apparently a very rare passage bird here, and totally unusual in a forest clearing. A couple of Red Junglefowl always posed the usual captivity or wild poser, but the cock in particular kept to the forest and seemed quite timid. Mammals made the occasional visit to the clearing, in the form of Grey-bellied & Plantain Squirrel, and Northern Treeshrew. A fourth, Western Striped Squirrel, was the same species as seen the previous afternoon at the park reception, but this time eating bananas on a hook. An occasional leg stretch outside of the hide produced Black-hooded Oriole, Common Iora, and Asian Brown Flycatcher.
The afternoon followed the same pattern as the morning - another full session sat in hides overlooking a clearing with a small pool of water as an attraction. We were supposed to set off for this second site, which had on offer some different species to the first, 15 minutes later than we did, due to a call from the morning location that the Silver Pheasants were showing again. Of course, they had departed the scene when we arrived, so we headed on to the second location, which was set somewhat deeper in the forest than the first. The mammals were in the ascendency this time, with all 3 Squirrels and the Treeshrew in good numbers, but this one or more species were on show at almost any time. A fifth mammal of the day was added to this - a pair of delicate Mouse Deer put in sporadic visits. A fair few of the species seen in the morning were also here, such as both Laughingthrushes, Black-naped Monarch, Tickell's Blue Flycatcher, and Streak-eared & Stripe-throated Bulbuls. Critically though, a Silver Pheasant strolled in mid way through the session. It was a bit confusing with pinkish legs, when we had expected them to be grey, but apparently this is well known in this area. A pair of Green-legged Partridges also put in a quick visit, not staying too long. We had had poor views of a couple of Large Scimitar Babblers in the morning, but a singleton this afternoon was much more obliging, bathing and preening for adequate periods of time. Other new species here was in the shape of Racket-tailed Treepie, with a group coming to the pool on a couple of occasions early on. As the light began to fade, some of the species which we had seen at the hides at the lodge came out - Abbott's & Puff-throated Babbler being the most notable. The latter even showed why they are so called, puffing out their white throats to brighten up the lowering light.
Day 4 - Kaeng Krachan forest
A change of vehicle was called for today, since we were to spend the whole day in the Kaeng Krachan park, and apparently some of the tracks are too rough for the van. So our driver for the duration was Mr Samarn, with Tui from the bird camp as main bird guide. The day was largely to consist of some known spots for certain species, with others picked up along the way. However, a bit of a kerfuffle preceded the main birding very early on, not long after we had passed the park gates. After rediagnosing Hill Myna as the correct and less common Golden-crested Myna, we were stunned by the visage of an Indian Elephant heading towards us. This is apparently an unusual occurrence in the morning, since they are almost always seen in the evening. It turned off the track into the bush, where we quickly relocated it. A second Elephant could be heard in the bushes behind us, and it duly came out into the open. We were all stood up in the back of the truck for images, but the driver didn't check on this, putting his foot down with Tui and myself tumbling out of the back and on to the ground. No noticeable scratches later, but a quick check on two items was a little disturbing. One, the microphone section of my video camera had sheared off (so that's why I burdon my luggage with a smaller spare!). Two, the elephant was now between us and the truck. We made our way slowly in reverse, while the elephant showed more interest in the vehicle, leaving us with plenty of time to be picked up a few minutes later.
So excitement over for the day over? No chance! Both mammals and birds were of quality as the day moved on. A stop just before the elephant incident had pinned down a small group of Wedge-tailed (perhaps expected) & White-vented (scarce in this part of the country) Green Pigeons, with a couple of Black-naped Orioles flung in for good measure. A Great Hornbill flew over, and a Heart-spotted Woodpecker found with the relocated pigeons. First stakeout was right next to the road, next to a stream, where a known nest of Brown Hornbill resided. While waiting, the first of many Ochraceous Bulbuls made an introduction. Even more evocative was the growing chorus of gibbons elsewhere in the forest - this could only be improved on by the sight of them in the trees! We must have waited for almost an hour, before the parent hornbills marked their entrance noisily, and fed the imprisoned chick for a few minutes each. We had already passed the spot for a known hangout for White-fronted Scops Owl, but came back after the hornbills due to other people being in the area. The owls were duly located, only a few metres above our heads, and again in trees adjacent to the track. Third stakeout before lunch was the one that didn't produce the expected, in this case nesting Great Hornbill. We spent an hour and a half trying, but to no avail. Bonus was a flying lizard which glided in to a tree nearby, and brief Asian Paradise Flycatcher, Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush, and more Ochraceous Bulbuls.
We headed back to the camping area we had passed on the way in for lunch. On the route, we stopped at a stream running through the track which held hundreds of butterflies of varying species, many segregated into their own little cliques. Presumably after the minerals from the stream edge, they almost carpeted parts of the muddy edge. Yet another bonus or two here. First was passing a Blue-bearded Bee-eater on the way to our portable nosh. Second was eating our delicious rice and chicken out of cartons, watched over by a group of Dusky Leaf Monkeys in the adjacent tree. Dinner finished, and a Lar Gibbon was spotted loafing around, trying to pinch the fruit laid out on a picnic area. Apparently this particular individual is one of a local troupe, but has found easy pickings amongst the visitors in the holiday season. Even so, it impressed with its natural arboreal skills when it tired of theft and slowly took back to the trees.
Two more stakeouts then followed with varied results. The first was another hour at a second Great Hornbill nest, with the same vacant activity as the one this morning. The overflying bird early doors was certainly looking good now. We then stopped off at the part built nest of Long-tailed Broadbill. Mr Sarman had been trying to tape them into view without much success along the track, but a few minutes at the nest site unearthed the stunning builder. It spent only seconds adding dead vegetation at a time, but did decide on an extended rest in a nearby perch in between times. Result!
Last stop was supposed to be a 10 minute lounge around at the restaurant area at the highest point of the park. This turned into an excellent hour of brilliant birding, with an almost constant variation as time elapsed. The building has a rather useful view at the rear over the valley, where many of the birds were spotted, such as Mountain Imperial Pigeon, Dark-sided Flycatcher, a roving gang of Swinhoe's Minivets, Indochinese Cuckooshrike, Moustached Barbet, and a flypast of Wreathed Hornbills. The bushes and trees around the building were probably even more productive, and this was easy birding, where we picked off one bird after another without breaking sweat. More Minivets were added to the family tally (Ashy, Short-billed & Scarlet), with 2 species of new Bulbuls (Flavescent & Mountain), 2 of Leafbird (Blue-winged & Orange-bellied), Streaked Spiderhunter, Blue-throated Barbet, and Common Green Jay amongst one or two others I am sure to have missed out. The driver fairly flew down on the way back, even though he was already far later than the allotted exit time, but we did have a minute on the way to stop for a troop of Banded Surilis.
Day 5 - Samarn Bird Camp area
This was the day of the long drive, from Kaeng Krachan to Khao Yai, which was to take around 5 hours. First order of the day though was a post breakfast walk about 100 metres down the road from the lodge. The camp kitchen was now used to us, so out with the oh so English eggs and tinned sausage, and in with the much more appropriate and tasty Thai noodles. This set us up for a good hour or so in the area of the lodge. The three day stay hadn't alerted us to the presence of a couple of ponds here, along with a productive bit of scrub and small bushes alongside. We thusly quickly notched up Bronze-winged Jacanas on the water's edge. Two White-throated Kingfishers were eclipsed by a perched Black-capped Kingfisher, and closer approach to the water unearthed a couple of Yellow Bitterns. One or two particular bushes seemed to be favoured by perching birds, predominantly White-vented Mynas, but these also harboured a couple of Vinous-breasted Starlings. Tui became quite excited about a couple of groups of Sri Lanka Green Pigeons, but we were more interested in the Black-naped Orioles busily chasing each other. A distant favoured bare tree held Coppersmith Barbet and Blue-winged Leafbird, with the latter supplanted quickly by Golden-fronted Leafbird. Plain-backed Sparrows were on the wires overhead.
Paddies on journey to Khao Yai
The long journey, which to be fair didn't seem to be quite as long as the 6 or so hours it actually took, really wasn't so bad. Worst part was the large middle section, which was back into the traffic and habitation around the outskirts of Bangkok. This was broken by a stop mid way, where we skirted some working rice paddies. The first was a bit of shock, leaving the comfort of the air conditioned van to the high heat of the outside world. The small paddy area here held a large collection of Cattle Egrets, some in fine breeding plumage, with smaller numbers of Little & Intermediate Egrets between. A second larger wet paddy was covered for images of common water birds, but turned up a pair of Greater Painted Snipe. Third and last stop was at a small lagoon, with 12 Cotton Pygmy Goose in the centre, and Blue-tailed Bee-eater on wires overhead.
Khao Yai accommodation area
We reached the entrance to Khao Yai national park late afternoon, but still had another 31km to drive to the reception from the gates. On the way in, or more precisely the slow drive along the track to our lodge, we passed a Pig-tailed Macaque by the roadside, obviously used to being fed by visitors by its begging behaviour. A Samba was the first of two, the second being only metres from the accommodation. Even closer was a Red Muntjak, which defied all attempts to get too close. It wasn't at all bothered by our presence. Of the few birds we saw while settling in, the most impressive were Oriental Pied Hornbills, two of which eventually landed in the tree next to our room. The excitement still hadn't finished. When we returned to the accommodation after the evening meal, a Malayan Porcupine was slowly making its way across the lawn in front of our building.
Day 6 - Khao Yai air force checkpoint
First the bad news for the location. Apparently the forests and open grassland of Khao Yai are wick with leeches and ticks, so the not so fashionable or comfortable leech socks are the order of the day. A small price to pay for the offerings of the park however. At first light, we had driven up over partly poorly tarmacked track to arrive at the air force checkpoint, and it was here that we spent a couple of hours. It is probably thanks to the checkpoint that this is such a good spot for birds first thing in the morning,. Since the lights outside of the office attracted a myriad of moths as the sun rose - a bird banquet indeed. No sooner could we see the birds than Black-throated Laughingthrushes and Ashy Drongos began the feast. The local variants of Black-crested Bulbuls, with red throats, joined in, although a couple of Dusky Warblers were more than happy with smaller insects. A small open copse behind the office had a party of Oriental White-eyes, with a couple of Rufous-fronted Babblers thrown in for good measure. A Grey-backed Shrike had a swooping technique on the moths. Regular visitors to a flowering bush overhead were a few Buff-bellied Flowerpeckers and occasional Black-throated Sunbird. There was a good view to be had to the valley below (as the sun burned off the mist), but the bowl of bushes just below us had Blue-winged Leafbird, Yellow-browed & Arctic Warbler, and Asian Fairy Bluebird. We thought a Mountain Imperial Pigeon had landed just in front of us, but it turned out to be a Barred Cuckoo Dove. The group of pigeons came a bit later. The birds seemed to slow down a bit as the morning progressed, so we left on a high.
Khao Yai forests
Next stop was near to the restaurants, where there was a stakeout for White-throated Rock Thrush. Meal worms had been purchased the day before on our journey to Khao Yai, not as a snack for us, but as thrush bait. Shortly after we arrived, and quickly found a Common Flameback, a Mugimaki Flycatcher took the bait, and wasn't in the least bit bothered by us at close quarters. It spent some time munching on bait, but we had to wait a lot longer for the Rock Thrush to appear. When it did, it was nearer the van than us, at another baited spot, but was just as unafraid of us as the flycatcher. However, a huge distraction was the small group of Gibbons which slowly passed through in the canopy behind, with a Black Giant Squirrel thrown in for good measure. The gibbons were a particular treat. Amongst them were both dark and cream individuals, with the former showing the white hands and face rim outstandingly well. It was also worth following them as they swung through the branches and tightrope walked some of the horizontal limbs.
The afternoon session was a strange one in some ways. We had been told of an Orange-bellied Trogon nest some way along trail #5, and decided to try for it. This was the first true bit of forest yomping we had done here, and the long trousers and leech socks made it all the more steamy. The trail was reasonably well marked, with only one or two obstacles to manage on the way. We picked up a small group of White-crested Laughingthrushes about half way along to the presumed spot. A trogon was seen to fly from a likely dead tree, but we still soldiered further on, until we reached a huge buttressed tree which would have been an obvious marker to mention, so presumed too far. We retraced our steps to where the trogon had flown, and lo and behold it flew again (only seen by the person at the front). Closer inspection found the nest with two eggs in a hollow on top of a low tree stump. We staked this out for as long as we thought ethical before leaving the bird to return. On the hot and energy sapping way back, we did see a Great Hornbill overhead, and a Grey-eyed Bulbul above the van on leaving the forest.
Following this, the remainder of the afternoon was spent driving the tracks looking for Siamese Firebacks along the edges. None appeared, but we were happily held up for some time by a road hog. This one had a trunk and tusks, and made its way slowly along the road followed by its own self made convoy. Elephants are supposed to be commonly seen in the park, but it was a joy to follow before disappearing into the forest anyway. I made sure I stayed securely in the vehicle this time though!
Just as the previous evening, the spotting didn't stop with dark. From the van on the way back from the restaurant, a Small Indian Civet was seen at the roadside, although it didn't hang around too long. Then back at the accommodation, a Malayan Porcupine was present again, this time feeding for some time just below our balcony.
Day 7 - Khao Yai
The first two and a half hours of the morning, from first light, were spent in some portable hides just behind a camping area in the park. This was a well known spot for Blue Pitta, and the usual plan of action is to set up either one- or two-man hides at first light, and scatter some meal worms in front. Then wait. And wait. The interior of the hide is surprisingly comfortable, with folding chairs. The Pitta was unimpressed however, and failed to put on a show. Adequate compensation in the guise of a pair of Siberian Blue Robins was had, however. The bright blue male in particular hung around for about an hour on and off, but steadfastly refused to hop into line directly in front of us.
When we finally stretched our way out of the hides, the guides had found the nest of an Asian Palm Swift, built impossibly precariously in the bent frond of a palm tree. A Blue Rock Thrush, this time a male, was preening on the top of a cafe, and we had Crested Serpent Eagle circling above the car park before our late morning walk. This was to be a true forest birding walk, taking a path adjacent to a small river, which was more or less static, towards the Orchid Waterfall. Going was nice and slow to try to pick up any bird life in the dense forest around us, although there were plenty of gaps to see the river and sky above. First good bird was a Blue-eared Kingfisher upstream, showing beautifully in the telescope. More walking and the only mini bird wave of the morning was chanced upon. A female Black-naped Monarch which was initially seen on the opposite bank, flew over to the tree above us to join a few Grey-eyed Bulbuls and a single Great Iora. The walk terminated after a rope assisted log crossing (not long or high, but enough to unbalance the unwary), where a Slaty-backed Forktail flew briefly in, and a Pig-tailed Macaque could be seen high in the open canopy. On the walk back, after a second fishing Blue-eared Kingfisher, a Mountain Hawk-eagle showed off its crest before flying off over the tops of the trees.
There was more than just a little déjà vu in the afternoon. We stopped off at a lookout point with a view, but became mainly distracted by the troupe of Pig-tailed Macaques that patrolled the car park area. There was an alpha male which bruised in eventually, and some of the females were carrying small dependents. They took little notice of the tourists until a couple of motor bikes pulled up. The occupants were naive enough to leave their helmets untethered on the seats, which was an open invitation for the wily primates to indulge in a spot of thievery. The cyclists got to the helmets just in time. Even more interesting (to watch rather than be part of!) was the event of the open back truck. The owner hadn't noticed that the alpha male had sneaked into the rear, and when he poked his nose over, all that could be seen was a flash of monkey canines - just missed but luckily a warning shot. A well aimed missile cleared the back of the truck. We then drove a little way down the road and stopped in a lay by, which was close to the nest of a Great Hornbill (the déjà vu!). We squatted on the fold away chairs by the side of the road for some time before the first rain of the week stopped play.
The rain only gradually died out, so we made our way back out in the van at around 4pm. During this time, there had also been a power cut, apparently due to a falling tree taking down some power lines. This was to last for some time, and we had to take dinner early to be able to see what we were shovelling down our necks! Immediately on leaving the accommodation, a reddish brown Asian Small Mongoose scurried across an open area of grass into the safety of the bushes. The drive was to try for firebacks again, by slowly crawling along some of the likely roads. This proved to be fruitless yet again, but we did make a long stop at one of the clearings, and this had a good variety of species. Greater Coucals had been a lot more prominent as we drove, and we even found a couple of Lesser Coucals. A Shikra and a couple of Imperial Mountain Pigeons passed overhead, with Ashy Woodswallows on the wires. Two separate Red-whiskered Bulbuls were the first of the trip, and a Verditer Flycatcher was in the distance at the top of a bush. New mammals were represented by a pair of beige coloured Variable Squirrels. As we left the clearing, it was obvious that an elephant had crossed the road since we passed by the mess of a tree that it had pushed on to the tarmac.
After returning to the accommodation earlier than usual from the meal, we hung around the balcony for some time until the Porcupine, and friend this time, put in its now expected appearance at around 8pm. Both were together, and this time almost directly under us, feeding in fruits dropped from the tree above. This should have been the last of the day, but we had a short walk with torches, and got to within around 10 metres of a calling Large-tailed Nightjar. Naturally, one of the porcupines was back at the same place again on our return.
Day 8 - Khao Yai
Feelings of deja vu seemed to be becoming the norm. This time it was the slow drive along the tracks not far from the accommodation to try to surprise some Siamese Firebacks into view. The early morning mist cast a diffused light through the trees and over the road, and we were rewarded third time lucky with some very obliging Firebacks. Initial views were of individual males which crossed the road directly in front of us, and then a group of four mixed males and females fed in the verge for some time. While these were out, another two males appeared on the other side of the parked van. Firebacks satiated, we walked the road searching for other birds, and came up with Asian Fairy Bluebirds, Moustached Barbet, Black-throated Laughingthrush, Common Green Magpie, and Variable Squirrel.
Then it was back to the same open grassland as the previous evening. The light of the morning was still reasonably weak, casting a warm glow on the scene, and the last vestiges of mist still lay in the valley. A Shrike was immediately found, and there was some discussion as to the species. It had no stripe above the eye, but the colour was a washed out brown, leading to Brown rather than Burmese. Ashy Woodswallows were again on the wires, with a couple of Red-whiskered Bulbuls again in the brush. A Cisticola was spotted, with the darkish crown and lack of white in the tail indicating Golden-headed. A couple of Siberian Stonechats were again flitting from perch to perch, and a juvenile Lesser Coucal flew away from us. Flying through were Black-naped Oriole and Mountain Imperial Pigeons.
A major treat had been reserved, and not divulged to us, for the last hour of our birding. The guides parked the van next to a reasonably sized pool, and erected the portable hides next to some very low sand banks a little way from the water's edge. A dry stick, sourced locally, was pushed into the ground in front of our new vantage point. This was to be an hour of close encounter of the Chestnut-headed Bee-eater kind. They had a colony in the low sand hills, and not only used the provided perch, but also landed on the ground on all sides of us. Extra entertainment was in the form of Richard's Pipits, a Common Flameback, and 2 overflying Wreathed Hornbills. A crashing in the trees behind us turned thoughts to elephant. It turned out to be a rather large Pig-tailed Macaque, stripping branches from one of the trees.
While we sat having, or just finishing off, lunch, an Asian Emerald Cuckoo flew into the canopy on the opposite side of the water, and a flying lizard showed off its throat pouch nearer to us.