The Pond, Khao Yai Thailand

Khao Yai, Thailand’s second largest national park, is world-famous for its vast stretches of wild jungle, great diversity of birds, and healthy populations of large mammals. Rightly so, groups of Asian Elephants roam the valleys, hornbills swoosh above, and rare predators like Clouded Leopards still hunt here. The eerie calls of White-handed and Pileated gibbons reverberate through the tall canopy and a cacophony of birdsong emanates from dense thickets every morning. Several rivers tumble from the mountains, rushing over dark precipices in silver curtains. These dramatic waterfalls attract thousands of visitors to Khao Yai.

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One of many waterfalls in Thailand Photo Stephan Lorenz

Birders flock here for the chance to see some of Southeast Asia’s rarer birds, like pittas, broadbills, hornbills, and the near-mythical Coral-billed Ground Cuckoo. Yet, among regular sightings of gray behemoths and vast stretches of untouched rain forest thriving with exotic birds there is a relatively quiet evening occurrence that for me may be the most captivating of all of Khao Yai’s natural treasures.

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Asian Elephants are common in Khao Yai Photo Stephan Lorenz

Near one of the main intersections in the park, surrounded by buildings housing researchers and park rangers lies an unassuming lake. Known to local birders as TAT pond, it plays host to a unique spectacle at dusk nearly every day of the year. About one-and-a-half hours before sunset needletails materialize out of nowhere. The birds circle above the pond with razor-sharp wings cutting through the cooling evening air before dipping down to drink and bathe. Needletails are large swifts that on first glance can easily be mistaken for small falcons. There are three species of needletails (Genus Hirundapus) in Thailand and four species in total in the world, with the Purple Needletail being the largest. Like most swifts the birds are built for speed and maneuverability with sleek bodies and stiff wings.

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Brown-backed Needletail showing unique tail feathers Photo Claudia Cavazos

 Needletails have unique tail feathers projecting past the main rectrices and at the pond the needletails come close enough that observers can actually see this feature. In Khao Yai, the Brown-backed Needletail is the most regular visitor to the pond and depending on the season groups of varying numbers come to drink and bathe. At other times of the year they are joined by the slightly smaller Silver-backed Needletail, which can be distinguished by a whitish colored back and lack of white forehead spots. The white spots on the Brown-backed Needletails look like headlights and are obvious when the birds fly directly at the observer. On extremely rare occasions the White-throated Needletail has been seen, but beware, Silver-backed Needletails can show a clean, well-demarcated white throat as I learned. So be careful with the identification. The much smaller Silver-rumped Spinetail occurs only in southern Thailand where it is fairly common.

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TAT pond in Khao Yai with needletails circling above Photo Stephan Lorenz

By the time I arrived, around 5 pm in March a sizeable group of needletails was already circling above the pond. Within moments they started to funnel down, skimming across the water. This is one of the few places to get really good looks at these stratospheric visitors. The birds circled mostly quietly before descending in soft arches. Some just skimmed across the surface with their wide mouths opening to drink, revealing a cavernous gullet, perfect for scooping up insects midair. Others flew rapidly and dipped their bodies into the water, momentarily breaking their momentum in a splash and then fluttered rapidly to regain speed. On the still surface of the pond the needletails left circular footprints and drew crescents as droplets fell from their plumage. I sat close enough to the pond’s edge to feel a few splashes of water as the needletails wheeled right overhead.

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Brown-backed Needletails bathing Photo Stephan Lorenz

The birds hit the water audibly and shook their wings once back in the air. Groups of needletails kept arriving, circling and bathing half-dozen times before shooting out of sight to roost. In between I watched Red Junglefowl noisily scratch through the leaf litter at the pond’s edge and a vociferous gang of White-crested Laughingthrushes moved through a thicket. An Oriental Pied Hornbill swooped between large trees at the far side of the pond, providing a backdrop to the circling shadows of swifts. I sat and waited, listening to the splash and watching the semicircles of falling water. A House Swift joined, appearing minute compared to the needletails.

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Oriental Pied Hornbills are common in Khao Yai Photo Stephan Lorenz

A full moon rose. Only a few latecomers continued circling and bathing, soft shadows in the fading light. While hornbills can be scoped in a distant tree, pittas lured from the shadowy depths, and barbets identified in a fruiting tree, the needletails arrive on their own time, visitors from another stratosphere.

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Needletails and near full moon above the pond at Khao Yai Photo Stephan Lorenz

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by William D. Shepler on May 12, 2016 at 7:39 pm

    very cool

    Reply

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