Impressions of Birding in Thailand

Thailand is an easygoing country, the people warm and friendly, the landscapes varied and in some cases stunning, and travel is convenient and affordable. The birding can be tough though. Thailand boasts a list of more than 1,000 species, but tracking down half of those during a longer trip will require some serious effort in the field, long days, and a good dose of luck. Yet, at the end of the day, birding in southeast Asia is always rewarding. I mean who could forget the sight of a stunningly colorful pitta finally emerging from the dense greenery or a goofy broadbill perched motionless in the canopy.

 

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Banded Broadbill, a star bird at Kaeng Krachen Photo Stephan Lorenz

I had several expected experiences, but also plenty of surprises and I learned a few new tricks and things about birding. First of all, I was surprised to spend a lot of time behind campground toilets or the outflows of retaurants at so called “stakeouts”. Also, I saw plenty of species at these stakeouts that I didn’t see elsewhere. If there is a stakeout, go sit there for awhile and likely a skulking bird or two will appear, usually something good. A tourist emerging from behind the communal bathrooms at a national park campsite always draws a few stares, but, hey I added Scaly Thrush, Siberian Blue Robin, and Orange-headed Thrush by sitting quietly, watching a puddle formed by toilet overflow in the forest. It was as much “fun” as it sounds.

Orange-headed Thrush, a striking species that can be quite skulking, but is easy to see at toilet stakeouts Photo Stephan Lorenz

At one famous stakeout at the Pa Gluay Mai campsite in Khao Yai National Park I met two French birders and their Thai guide who spent two full mornings squatting behind the loo hoping for some choice birds like Coral-billed Ground-Cuckoo or Blue Pitta to make an appearance (apparently not enough toilet leakage, the birds never showed). I wondered what they tell their wives at home about the trip: Yes the national park was great, stubtail, laughingthrush, and babbler showed well behind the WC, but we dipped on the pitta and cuckoo, huh…??

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Common Green Magpie is an uncommonly striking bird, also best observed at waterhole hides Photo Stephan Lorenz

These stakeouts are definitely worth it and any restaurant in national parks backing up to some good habitat is worth exploring, especially if one can locate a good heap of kitchen scraps. In Doi Inthanon National Park I had stellar looks at Rufous-throatd Partride coming to kitchen waste and near Doi Ang Khang a feeding fenzy of wintering Eye-browed, Black-breasted, and Gray-sided thrushes during a cold spell finally allowed excellent views of these skulkers.

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Rufous-throated Partridge Photo Stephan Lorenz

More about stakeouts and industrialized stakeouts in a minute, but birders unfamiliar with southeast Asia must first understand how shy the local feathered critters are. I had birded in Malaysia before, but quickly forgotten the struggle and occasional frustration. Birding in Thailand can be humbling at the best of times and absolutely desperate at others. There are just fewer birds and the forest birds tend to be very shy (hence the stakeouts). It does make every sighting more rewarding, but can also lead to hours of birding the shadowy forest, glimpsing nothing but shapes flitting away unidentified. I am not sure why the birds appear more secretive, but continued or recent hunting and persecution maybe the reason and my general unfamiliarity with the avifauna and calls doesn’t help.

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Puff-throated Babbaler, a forest interior skulker emerges to drink water Photo Stephan Lorenz

The birding in southeast Asia definitely involves more waiting. In Central in South America it often pays to continue exploring the trails, looking for feeding flocks, bumping into species’ territories, or intercepting something crossing the path. In Thailand on the other hand hanging around a fruiting tree or a shady glade with some water is often more productive. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of common and easy species to see here. Bulbuls crowd fruting trees and are obvious in cultivated country, barbets call from the top of exposed trees, and migrant flycatchers and warblers are everywhere during the winter months. Yes many species of babblers, pittas, broadbills, and more require patience and some effort, well that is birding in general.

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Black-crested Bulbul, bulbuls are one of the easier groups of birds to see in Thailand and a longer trip could net 30 species, not all of them as striking as this one Photo Stephan Lorenz

Photography is much more prevalent and important in the Thai birding community and, in fact, I did not see any local birders without humungous lenses (to my untrained eye looked like 500mm or larger). Many local birders didn’t seem to carry binoculars, but had a solid tripod with an optical bazooka on their shoulder. Photographers go to great and sometimes unfamilar lengths to capture images. Since many of the forest birds are very shy, they resort to coaxing the birds out of the brush with many feeding stations. For example, at Doi Lang photographers have cleared patches in the dense grasses and put out mealworms on rocks, wich can attract a variety of skulkers (this practice is not without controversy). For some lucky folks, me not included, pittas even partake in the free feast occasionally.

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A male Siberian Blue Robin comes out of the shadows, many migrnats winter in Thailand, adding a nice mix of birds during those months Photo Stephan Lorenz

Near famous Kaeng Krachen National Park local hunters have set up blinds that now allow birders to have excellent views of difficult species and locals have an income besides pursuing birds. In this case everyone wins. We spent an entire day at the well-known Lung Sin waterhole, which was a new experience for me, sitting still for up to 10 hours, but we had close and clear views of several partridges, pheasants, and some other tricky species. Of course photographers flock to these places. I still feel divided, since watching chickens (they liked to be called Red Junglefowl here) emerge from the forest to feed on corn is somewhat anticlimatic, but often the only way to see many species during a short trip. While we sat motionless the waterhole attracted a Slaty-legged Crake in the late afternoon, a species we would never have seen without the blind setup.

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Red Junglefowl, if it wouldn’t be our common chicken, this would be one of the most sought-after species Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Slaty-legged Crake, a rare and secretive species visits a waterhole in the late afternoon after hours of waiting Photo Stephan Lorenz

Photographers in Thailand are just a notch more serious about getting the close shot. While birding in the shorebird area of Pak Thale (of Spoonbill Sandpiper fame) we spotted a handful of photographers by the side of the road, their long lenses trained across a large, water-filled saltpan. We stopped to investigate and learned they were looking at a long-staying pair of Common Shelduck (a major rarity in Thailand). I happily snagged this lifer through my scope and noticed an odd shape floating in the water towards the ducks. It was a photographer, nearly fully submerged, pushing an inflatable tire with a camera mounted on top. Not surprisingly, when he got close the ducks flew off.

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The well-known sandspit near Pak Thale offers a chance to see the large Pallas’s “Great Black-headed” Gull Photo Stephan Lorenz

Other things to keep in mind when birding in Thailand: Despite what the field guide indicates there are no woodpeckers, raptors, or green-pigeons in Thailand, but there are plenty of shorebirds (we found 40 species), bulbuls and pheasants (surprisingly we saw all possible pheasants and partridges, although often with the help of some bird seed). We were able to photograph all, here for some pictoral relief:

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Spotted Redshank Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Marsh Sandpiper Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Black-winged Stilt Photo Stephan Lorenz

If someone says: Oh, it’s just another leafbird. You ask: What kind? (since there are five possible species). Even if the trail is quiet, keep looking. The birds are there they just don’t want to be seen that day, so come back tomorrow. There are always surprises in Thailand and plenty of mammals to look for if the birds are quiet. Birding is easier in the highlands than lowland rainforest. Take a break and bird some rice paddies, then return to the forest. Doi Lang was my favorite place so far. Local birders are extremely nice and helpful, ask about stakeouts and visit these! I have never birded hard, full days for 35 species at the end before. Treat every sighting with reverence, since there is a good chance you won’t see that species again, except for Eurasian Tree Sparrows. And most of all, birding in southeast Asia is humbling, fun, and absolutely rewarding. Thailand remains the most accessible place to see Spoonbill Sandpiper, reason alone to go.

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The weirdly cute Small Pratincole Photo Stephan Lorenz

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