Trip Report: Sri Phang Nga and Klong Saeng – 7-9 March 2020

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In 2019 I declared that I’d focus on having more balance in my work-life schedule. Now I found that God reads my blog because he answered by issuing the Coronavirus which effectively puts me in a position where … I may not have a job any more. So thank you for my life back, and if you are still reading, is this a good time to bring up the million dollars I asked for a while back? (Heh heh …)

With mandatory leaves looming on the horizon I decided to take the opportunity to get two days off work and visit Cheio Laan Lake with David and Margret from Australia.

We started the first day at Sri Phang Nga where my good friend Khun Narong has been dutifully keeping tabs on the movement of birds in the park. With the dry season coming early this year, nesting is now in full swing and a good thorough check of all the trails should lead to some excellent opportunities for bird photography.

We started out birding along the road where we picked up some usuals such as Coppersmith Barbet, Blue tailed Bee Eater and Grey rumped Treeswift as well as a handsome Greater Racket tailed Drongo.

Once at the park we headed straight for the blinds which Narong had erected at the former Javan Frogmouth site. Chinese Blue Flycatcher and Orange Headed Thrush were the first to show followed by a pair of White rumped Shama. The Queen of the forest, the ever-beautiful female Banded Pitta, refused to come down to the clearing, harassed by the annoying Orange Headed Thrush.

Outside the hide I found a pair of Red bearded Bee Eater, only this fellow had a pink beard. –Has anyone else noticed that as well or is it just me?

At the clearing we encountered a male Banded Pitta who posed very nicely for us and stuck around, completely ignoring our presence.

A short walk to Ton Aou waterfall produced another male Banded Pitta, a Crimson Sunbird, Grey throated Babbler, Chestnut winged Babbler and distant views of the Chestnut naped Forktail.

From there we moved to Klong Sok where we searched unsuccessfully for the River Lapwing. All we found were two Red wattled Lapwing roasting in the midday heat.

At another river site we finally found a pair of River Lapwing were pleasantly pleased to find they were breeding! The female was obviously incubating eggs as every so often she would go down to the river, wet her belly in the water and return to cool the rocks and eggs.

A Purple Swamphen was briefly seen crossing the river with three chicks in tow.

From there we made the long drive to Cheio Laan lake, arriving at around 3 PM. After boarding the boat we made our way through the infamous Little Gulin and off to mouth of Kong Ya.

The towering limestone karsts of Little Guilin

We found ourselves a fruiting tree and discovered a Great Hornbill feeding in the boughs of the tree. Wreathed Hornbill was seen flying overhead and we also encountered three Bushy Crested Hornbills in the distance.

Raptors were active as well with Lesser Fish Eagle, Crested Serpent Eagle, Osprey and White bellied Sea Eagle.

A horde of Flying Foxes were stirred from their roost by a soaring White bellied Sea Eagle

That evening we headed out on the lake in search of the Buffy Fish Owl. We located one but the fellow was far too high in the bamboo to get some good photos.

That night a juvenile Buffy Fish Owl parked itself at the back of the bungalows and whined for mommy from 3 in the morning until dawn. Sadly, it moved on instead of staying to roost all day, perhaps out of fear as I was determined to capture a mugshot of the murmurer!

Bungalows at Tum Jia

The next morning we started the trip with a visit to Tum Jia. Raptors were plentiful with Lesser Fish Eagle, Rufous bellied Eagle, Oriental Honey Buzzard, Osprey, White bellied Sea Eagle, Oriental Hobby and a possible Bat Hawk spotted.

Nesting season for the hornbills is in full swing and it was evidenced by a sighting on a male Great Hornbill scouring a dead tree for food for its mate.

Another male Wreathed Hornbill was also seen.

Two Lesser Fish Eagle took to flight and I observed strange behavior between the two, possibly a show of dominance between two males.

The forest view at Tum Jia

After lunch we walked the nature trail and found evidence of sunbear and fresh taipir footprints and droppings. Sadly we did not encounter the beast. We did find Chinese Blue Flycatcher, Great Iora and Golden bellied Gerygone. Black and Yellow Broadbill was our constant companion but it was impossible to locate in the myriad of trees.

In the afternoon we headed back to see a pair of guar which were reportedly seen near the river mouth but arrived too lake.

That night we faced some engine trouble which delayed our arrival at Klong Saeng Wildlife Sanctuary until 10 PM.

The next day we woke up to a delightful 14 degree morning with mists and calling birds and gibbons. After a quick breakfast we headed down the river in search of mammals and birds.

Water levels were extremely low and the once mighty river had given way to wide expanses of rolling knolls and short grasses. Evidence of mammals was everywhere yet none were seen.

White Bellied Sea Eagle, Lesser Fish Eagle and Peregrine Falcon were spotted and Great, Pied and Plain pouched Hornbills were seen in flight.

A gang of Dusky Broadbills came by and I was able to lure two out into the open for better looks.

Other birds seen in the area included Blue Winged Leafbird and Red bearded Bee Eater.

From there we moved on to the second river, Klong Ya where we searched for the Grey headed Fish Eagle. Water levels here were far lower than expected and the eagle was nowhere to be seen.

We were pleased to find a troop of Spectacled Langars in one tree, the highlight being a little baby that seemed intent on giving mom multiple heart attacks with its daredevil behavior.

By 11 AM the sun was high above and the forest had grown quiet so we bade farewell to the park and returned to civilization.

A total of 76 species were seen on the trip. Thank you David and Margret for putting up with me and hope you enjoy your trip throughout southern Thailand.

Bird Guiding in Phuket in 2020

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Hi everyone!

I still get a lot of mail asking about guiding in Phuket. I am ashamed to say this, but due to the volume of work and computer issues with my PC at home, I have not been able to answer emails and for that I apologize.

Please note that I currently do not do guiding and cannot take anyone birding due to my job demands. I simply do not have time for guiding and am not as connected to the birding community as I was in the past.

Secondly, the Tourism Authority of Thailand has increased the qualifications for those applying for licenses and introduced a ludicrous three-month training regiment which all hopeful guides must undergo if they want a license. -Not to mention they are no longer accepting English speaking guide applicants, only Chinese and Russian speaking. -Huh???

Currently we have only 1 qualified birding guide in Phuket which I can recommend and that is Tony “Eagle Eye”. There are other companies which offer birding tours but I have not been very impressed with their knowledge of species or habitats and many of them rely heavily on overusing playback and meal worms or backbreaking work on the part of local rangers, many of whom receive little compensation for their efforts.

For that reason it has been hard for me to recommend any local guides to prospective birders visiting the region.

Tony charges a lot for his time and it will not fit the budget of most birders who are simply looking for a one day trip around Phang Nga or Phuket.

I would therefore like to request that if anyone has a good suggestion of a local guide who they’ve found to be knowledgeable and reasonably priced, please kindly let me know or leave a note at the bottom of this post for the benefit of others who visit this page looking for guiding options in the area.

Many thanks for your comments and happy hunting in 2020.

 

Happy New Year 2020

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Dear Friends,

Happy New Year 2020 to you all!

2019 was a tumultuous year for me as I struggled to grow into the huge shoes left for me by my department manager after she resigned. Getting adjusted to the ever-moving, never resting pace of the hospitality industry also took its toll and I felt completely drained and lifeless by the end of 2019.

Thankfully I was able to take a week off with my family which afforded me one day of birdwatching. This allowed me to add Blue Crowned Hanging Parrot to my Life List for 2019, making it two new birds for the year. I’m ashamed to have such a low count but sometimes sacrifices must be made for the better good, and in this case it was focusing on the needs of my family and future.

I hope to be able to find more balance in 2020 as my focus this year will be to achieve the famed “Work-Life Balance” which everyone drones on about. Right now it sure looks like a Utopian “Pie in the Sky” but I really do hope to be able to get back to some birding in the near future and spend quality time with my family as opposed to just spending my life as an office worker.

So here’s to you all in 2020 and I wish you all the best. Hopefully you will hear and see more of me this coming year. Cheers!

Lifer 700: Oriental Plover – 9/3/19


I find working in the hospitality business is a full-time job which consumes almost all free time and weekends. So when Mr. Danai, a local birder told me about a sighting of Oriental Plover in nearby Takuapah, I didn’t quite jump at the news.

Not to mention my birding lens is off for repairs as well …

Looking at my work list I saw I had quite a lot to do to meet my March 10 deadline. Then I turned to look at my Life list. I stood pat at 699, having only gotten two Lifers in 2018. My next vacation isn’t due until next month. But at the same time, this wasn’t a bird that was going to stay for long. Oriental Plovers are not uncommon winter migrants; they are rare.

The thought of working late on Sunday night didn’t sit well with me but I finally made peace by telling myself that this was an opportunity of a lifetime. I hope I’m wrong about that.

With some encouragement from my wife we decided to head off in the early afternoon. It didn’t help the fact that it took over two hours to get out of Phuket, no thanks to the caravan of 10-wheelers and tractor trailers carting their wares off the island.

We arrived at 5 PM. It took some time to find the location, a remote dirt road off the main highway near Takuapah. Even my son was baffled at how a birder would end up in such a strange location.

The area was a large pasture land for grazing buffalo. Dried wallowing holes were dotted throughout the area. A large herd of water buffalo was feeding in the distance and to our right another smaller herd fed on grasses near what looked like a small river.

The first birds we noticed were the dozens of Red throated Pipits, a bird not commonly found in the area. The flocks were busy feeding on the ground, no doubt tanking up for their long flight home. Among them were Paddyfield Pipits, their upright posture singling them out from the horde of hungry cousins.

We were in search of roosting Pacific Golden Plover and despite our search, only one was found. I was told the flock could be seen from the road. I didn’t really want to tromp off into the sunset traversing the minefield of cow pies but sometimes life demands you to do things you weren’t expecting.

So off we went.

Over a small knoll we came across a flock of Oriental Pratincole. There must have been at least 200 birds roosting on the patch and they were gorgeous! About half the group took to flight, their slender wings and torpedo shaped bodies bulleting through the sky, flashing chestnut reflecting off their underwing patch in the early evening light.

Further along we finally found the flock of plovers we were looking for but there was no Oriental Plover to be found among them. I looked out over the field and saw dozens of birds feeding in the distance. Perhaps it was over there? But would we have enough time to make it there and back on foot?

It was then that our attention was drawn to a single buffalo walking towards us, snout flattened and jaw raised. I reassured myself the animal meant no harm and that the river between us would prevent the creature from coming at us.

It was then that my son told me there was no water but that it was a dry riverbed. Yes it was a deep ravine, but the buffalo could make light work of that if they wanted to.

We decided to quietly move on but the single buffalo was not impressed. Soon it was joined by other members of the herd, all of which were moving toward the riverbed with the same, aggressive posture.

It was when one finally plunged into the riverbed that my wife yelled “RUN!”

It’s hard to say what was going through my head as I hobbled my way towards safety. “What the heck am I doing here, I should be at home filing reports!” “Was this whole endeavor a waste of time?” “Will I go down in history as being the first birder to be killed by a stampeding herd of water buffalo while looking for a plover?”

After moving to the treeline (me and my balky knee being the last one to make it) we waited for the first of the buffalo to emerge from the river bank. After some time we decided to take a peek and found they had forgotten about us and moved some 200 meters down the river into a bamboo thicket. They must have lost the scent and gotten distracted with the cool mud in the riverbed.

We were now in a different area of the field and decided to start walking back towards the car – just in case another incident like this occurs.

It was then that we spotted it.

A single Oriental Plover in semi breeding plumage, standing all alone on a small knoll, 100 meters in front of us. Had it not been for the mad buffalo scenario we would have never come across it.

Mr. Danai have told me the bird was shy but this fellow was not one to be intimidated. We made it within 20 meters before the bird ran off like an irritated roadrunner, in the direction of the feeding buffalo.

6 PM and Lifer Number 700 was in the bag. -And what a special one it was!

We all sat down on an embankment and watched the bird for 30 minutes as it fed and preened before finally fluttering off to join a group of birds feeding near a new group of water buffalo.

I thought of hanging around to confirm Great eared Nightjar, another bird which has long been on my Twitched list but never made it onto the Life list. But having checked the bag and realizing I’d forgotten to pack the flashlight, we decided to head on home and leave that for another day.

Thank you to Mr. Danai for telling me about the bird and passing on information on where to find it.

Birding Log: Wat Sin Supharam – 27/1/19

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Tuesday morning I woke up to a strange noise outside, coming from the sky above. I couldn’t see at first as the balcony afforded very limited views but from the calls there were three birds and they were very loud and flying very low.

When one finally passed over, it was clear that the bird was not a normal resident of my neighborhood. It was a Griffon.

Sadly, there was no opportunity to chase the bird and get photos. Duty called and I  sadly headed off to beat the morning traffic in order to be at work on time.

Fast forward to the 26th: Khun Danai, a local birder, made mention of the vultures being present on Phuket on his Facebook page. This was good news as most of the time they just pass through. So this Sunday morning I packed the bag and set off to Chalong to see if the birds were still out and about.

Most of the raptors we find in Phuket love to hang out near Wat Sin Supharam and it’s easy to see why. The area is now home to a brand new dam but in the past it was classic riverine country, with a winding, rocky riverbed, tall grasses and open grassland surrounded by hilly forest. – The perfect feeding habitat for wildlife, if only they were still present. -And prime habitat for tiger, if only they weren’t extinct from Phuket.

– And prime vulture territory.

We arrived at 9 AM and it was rather windy. Brahminy Kite were buzzing around. One full lap around the lake revealed little other than the usual suspects: Spotted Dove, Chestnut headed Bee Eater, Chinese Pond Heron and the assortment of Barn Swallows.

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At the bottom of the dam we found a Crested Serpent Eagle being harassed by a pair of Crows.

Four dark spots appeared over the dam and a quick peek in the binoculars had my mind in a tizzy. They were very far away but far too large to be your average raptor.

A quick drive back around the dam confirmed that yes, these were the Himalayan Griffon Vultures we were looking for!

I grabbed by camera and to my dismay, found that the CF card was full after “someone” had left the camera on and the shutter pressed against a hard surface, resulting in over 6,000 photos of the inside of my dingy cupboard. Worse yet, after deleting five shots, the battery died.

– So no chance of photos. Well, I’ll just have to enjoy the views instead. – After all, isn’t that what birdwatching is all about?

There were four birds, all in the same area and very high in the sky. My partner, my visiting father-in-law from the U.S, brought along his camera but even with a 400 mm good photos were hard to come by.

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We observed the birds for 20 minutes before watching them head off eastward towards Chalong Bay.

Someone we met told me that the Raptor Association had set up a vulture restaurant somewhere in the area and showed me a video clip on their phone of the birds greedily feasting on a pile of bones. It’s good to see private organizations ramping up their efforts to help these birds. Too many of them drop out of the sky on their migration south and some never make it home due to lack of food and refuge.

Some people believe these birds will be around for a little while. I can’t say for sure. But if they are being fed and cared for, who knows, I’d be happy if they decided to stick around for a year!

New Direction, New Year

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First I would like to start by thanking everyone who has visited this webpage in the past year and for those whose interest in birding has helped, in some way or another, to support the livelihood of local Thai people.

Some of you are wondering why I stopped posting and my website just went silent. Simply put, the world is changing and life just couldn’t continue as it was. In the past I was a teacher and did birdwatching trips on the side.

I will have to admit that throughout my 18 years in the south, never once was there a time when I felt that guiding birding tours in southern Thailand would support me to where I could do it as a full-time occupation. Other guides felt the same which is why Phuket now has only one licensed, professional tour guide available. –And even he has to take trips to central and northern Thailand to make ends meet.

With the downturn in the economy and more birders looking to explore on their own, I saw the writing on the wall and took a radical change in my line of work. No longer would I be an entrepreneur, now I would join the system and clock into a full-time job in the hospitality industry.

Working as a teacher allowed flexibility, especially in Thailand’s educational system. But as a member of a corporate team, flexibility is reserved only for adapting daily schedules to meet deadlines, not to free up workdays to get in time for birding. And even if I was to take a day off for birding, the volume of work stacked on my desk on my return is enough to deter even the strongest of wills.

So all that to say, for now my guiding days are laid to rest. There are many wonderful memories and I credit that to all of you who graciously chose to have me as your guide. Thank you for the opportunity you provided for me to guide you and to share with you about my country, my food and my heritage.

If I can afford to do it again in the future I will let you know, but I know for certain that now that I have closed the book on this chapter of my life, there will be little chance I will return to relive it once again, save only in my dreams and memories.

I will still blog about birds when I can and I will keep the reviews posted. No doubt in time they will become dated but as with all posts online, everything should be checked and cross referenced before being taken as “gospel truth”.

Wishing you all a wonderful 2019 with all the birds you could ever wish and hope for. As for me, please wish me the best for my birding as well. –I’m still stuck at 699 lifers and sorely hope I will finally hit 700 in 2019!

The Passing of a Birdwatching Legend

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Mr. Yothin Meekaeo, photo taken from his Facebook page

Any birder who has heard of the name “Gurney’s Pitta” will also be familiar with the name “Yothin”. And there is a very good reason for that.

Yothin Meekaeo is the first name that comes to mind for birders looking for the fabled Gurney’s Pitta, a bird once thought to be extinct until its rediscovery in the late 1980s. Yothin was a legend among the birding community for his ability to unlock the secrets of Khao Nor Chuchi, one of the last remaining lowland forest fragments in Thailand and undoubtedly the most difficult birdwatching location in the country. If finding specialties like the Great Wren Babbler or Malaysian Rail Babbler was tough, locating and getting memorable views of the Gurney’s Pitta was a fantasy to most.

When all else failed, birders knew the only person they could rely on to deliver the bird was Yothin.

Yothin was a native of Krabi. He was a typical southern man, quiet and brooding at times, but also known for his loud, brash outbursts, especially when confronted with a situation he didn’t approve of. Like all great men, he was a polarizing figure; some loved and revered him while others despised and loathed him. To some he was a friendly, gentle man who had a passion for nature and worked tirelessly to protect and conserve the remaining wildlife of Khao Nor Chuchi; to others he was no more than a local gangster whose only interest was to maintain a monopoly over his fiefdom.

Despite what people may have thought of him, there was one thing no one could deny: this man was a genius at his trade, one of the best birdwatching guides in the kingdom, with ears a desert fox would be envious of.

His knowledge of bird calls and ability to locate birds among the thick labyrinth of twisted jungle vines and dense foliage was nothing short of astonishing. Having guided in the south myself, I know how difficult it is to locate a bird just by call; the behavior of most birds in the south is such that they rarely stand around long enough for you to spot them. Moving around while trying to locate the bird only decreases the chances of you finding it. Yothin however, made it look like a walk through a museum.

I was blessed to have gone birding with him on a few occasions and while we missed seeing the Gurney’s Pitta (it was the wrong time of year), I was able to witness firsthand his personality and birdwatching abilities. One testament to his acute sense of hearing was displayed on a walk down B trail when Yothin casually mentioned that he’d heard a Giant Pitta calling from a distance away.

I should know. –After all, I was the one who accidentally bumped my MP3 player which played the call while I was apart from the group answering the call of nature. Without speakers attached, the playback was barely audible for me, much less to Yothin standing some 500 meters down the track. Amazingly, and to my embarrassment, he’d picked it up.

In recent years with the demise of the Gurney’s Pitta and tighter restrictions on birding in Khao Nor Chuchi, Yothin began to take on birding trips throughout southern Thailand. I remember meeting him in Sri Phang Nga and Krung Ching National Parks. Like many others he took up photography and spent countless hours honing his skills behind the lens.

The people of southern Thailand are not known for being instant friends like their counterparts from the central or northeastern regions. Southerners are generally polite on the outside but can take years to really warm up to the point where you can refer to them as “friends”. Once a friend however, they are fiercely loyal and will go the mile to stick their neck out for you. This was true of Yothin; those who knew him well will testify of his kindheartedness, warmth and passion.

What did I think of him?

I never really got to know him well enough but of the times I did get to go birding with him, I was impressed with his skills and tenacious desire to fulfil his client’s wish lists. From the times I spent talking with him over a cold drink or over lunch, his simplicity and humility stood out the most to me. He didn’t talk about the accolades he received, the famous personalities he’d met or taken birding or the discoveries he’d made while birding. He took the time to answer my questions on how to sharpen my birding skills, what I needed to do to become a better birdwatcher and highlighting the importance of conservation issues in Thailand.

It was only a brief glimpse of who he was on the inside and I only wish that I could have known him on a more personal level rather than just a professional level.

Sadly, that will no longer be possible.

On the 7th of August Mr. Yothin passed away in what was rumored to be a heart attack. He was in his early 50s. His family is planning on cremating his body on the 14th of this month. He may have left us but his legacy will live on in the memories of all those who met him and had the honor of birding with him. He will be missed; but I know that somewhere, right now, Mr. Yothin is smiling and happy, surrounded by those beautiful birds he loved and cherished throughout his life.

Goodbye good sir. May your soul rest in peace.

Similan Closes Doors on Campers at Koh Miang

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Overnight on Similan is now a thing of the past. -Photo by Ike Suriwong

Last week the Department of National Parks declared that it would end overnight stays for tourists on the Similan Islands, citing concerns such as pollution and overcrowding. As a birder the decision comes with mixed feelings. My first and only overnight stay on Similan was in 2011 on a trip sponsored by my good friend Anton “Tony” Schnell. The experience was peppered with both memorable and forgettable incidents, none more shocking than the horrid condition of the bungalow we rented for an eye-watering 2800 baht on Koh Miang.

– More on that later.

Staying overnight on Surin, Similan, Lipeh or any other of these paradise islands of the Andaman offers a unique experience unrivaled by any other national park in Thailand. Imagine waking up to sunrise on a deserted beach of glistening white, unspoiled sand whilst being serenaded by sound of waves softly lapping the shore. Birds are singing their morning songs. Mother Nature embraces you with a gentle breeze, her wet kiss in the form of a cool drop of dew which splashes on your forehead from the canopy above.

You stroll down the beach savoring the powdery sand as it squishes between your toes. Ghost crabs scurry to their dens while Hermit crabs tuck into their shells at the sight of the looming giant. Just ahead a Pacific Reef Egret lands near the water to forage for breakfast, completely ignoring your presence. Green and Pied Imperial Pigeons pass overhead and in the bay a pair of Brahminy Kite begin circling. Three feet from where you stand a pair Nicobar Pigeons are picking at a the sand. You left your binoculars in the tent but who cares; the birds are so close you could probably count the fleas on them, if there were any.

Run bird, RUN! A Nicobar Pigeon scurries by the photographer. -Photo by Ike Suriwong

Apart from the 200 or so other lodgers lucky enough to have spent the night in paradise, no one else is around. There is no gurgling outboard motor emitting the rancid stench of gasoline, no horde of selfie-intoxicated femme fatales, no mentally-deranged sunburnt male ranting incessantly at 120 decibels in a foreign language – at least not yet. For now it’s just you and Mother Nature. -Even those 200 other campers seem to be a forgotten thought.

Fast forward to 11 AM and those precious morning moments seem lost in another timeline. Nearly 6,000 people of all ages, sizes and cultures are thronging the beach. The sea becomes a jousting ground between boats and swimmers. Queues for the bathroom stretch out onto the pathways. The rubbish bins are filled to overflowing with plastic wrappers and straws. In all the din and confusion it’s hard to find any sign of nature. Any crawling animal unlucky enough to be discovered quickly becomes the center of attention, garnering more interested photographers than George and Amal Clooney on the red carpet.

By 10 AM the beaches on Koh Miang are starting to get busy. -Photo by Ike Suriwong
By 10 AM the beaches on Koh Miang are starting to get busy. -Photo by Ike Suriwong

Sadly for most people, this is all they will ever experience of these islands. Over 90% of tourists visiting Mu Koh Similan or Mu Koh Surin National Parks are known as daytrippers. They board the boats at 9 AM, tour the islands, enjoy a few hours on the beach and head back to the mainland by 4 PM.

-Is this what you pay 3500 baht to experience?

No, not me. That’s why I opt to stay overnight. After 3 PM, once the speedboats and hordes of homosapiens have returned to the mainland a sense of normalcy returns. Birds start singing, raptors take to flight and the island exhales in relief.

Staying overnight is the only way to really experience the island for what it is. However, despite the myriad of experiences one will treasure for a lifetime, not all experiences are worth remembering, the main one being the issue of sleep.

The most affordable method is to rent a tent. However, with no fans most people will find it too hot, even for those sleeping directly on the beachfront. The only other option is to rent a bungalow. Some are equipped with fans and others with rudimentary air conditioning, both of which run off electricity produced by a loud, noxious and unmaintained generator.

Obviously most customers crave the creature comforts of the bungalows over the tents, which is why the prices of the bungalows are pegged at ludicrous levels. The bone of contention lies in the condition of the bungalow which one is required to pay out of their ears for; the room is unkempt, the furniture well past their expiry date, mattresses are hard, sheets are smelly and the pillows stained with more spots of drool than a supernova. Creaky wooden floors offer an insightful view of the pest purgatory under your feet. All you can do is hope and pray the Rapture doesn’t take place at three in the morning.

– And the air conditioning, the primary reason you forked over the family jewels in the first place, predates World War II, or at least it looks like it. There’s more decay on the unit than that of a submerged Japanese Zero. I pulled back the condenser panel to find a carpet of dust so thick I could have padded the mattress with it.

So am I happy with the decision to ban overnight stays on Similan? Judging by the paragraphs above, one can come to the conclusion it’s a mixed bag. I will not miss sleeping (or struggling to sleep) in a hot tent on a sun-baked beach with no fan. Neither will I shed a tear to see the dilapidated and poorly-maintained bungalows being crushed to powder by soot-belching backhoes. But there are things I will miss …

I will miss the cool, peaceful dawn; the silent stroll down paradise beach in solitude; the smell of fresh, crisp sea air mixed with a touch of ocean spray. But most of all, I will miss waking up to the birds, especially those adorable Nicobar Pigeons. I will miss sitting under a tree and watching these endangered birds poking around my feet like domestic chickens, scouring the ground for a meaningful breakfast. This I will miss terribly.

As a naturalist and birdwatcher, staying overnight is a must in order to fully experience all that the island had to offer. –And what an amazing experience it is! On the other hand, seeing the poor quality of living one had to put up with makes me question whether the DNP is serious about encouraging people to reconnect with Mother Nature or just trying to rip off her darling disciples.

The main issue I want to point to however is the underlying reason why overnight stays have now been banned. The DNP claims that it will reduce pollution from sewage and generators as well as the demand for fresh water which is scarce on the island. Leftover construction materials or rubble from former structures is also a form of pollution which has accumulated over the decades.

I feel that overnight stays are not the root of pollution. It is the tsunami of tourists which are shipped in every day by tour agencies in Phuket and Phang Nga. There are simply too many tourists on the island during the day. There is no way to keep the numbers from surging due to aggressive sales and advertising campaigns on the part of the Tourism Authority of Thailand as well as local tour agencies.

In a perfect world the best solution would be to limit the number of tourists allowed in the national park on any given day. But that’s not going to happen. We know the government will not back down from its demands on the tourism industry to fill its coffers and the DNP (despite its claims to be a “nature-focused entity”) will never institute limits on the amount of visitors for fear of losing revenue.

The beach at Similan Island is the last stop on the tour before turning home. -Photo by Ike Suriwong

So how can we address the issue?

The DNP simply needs to strategize and work with the tour agencies to map itineraries so that the impact of tourists do not fall squarely on Koh Miang; rotate snorkeling sites; open a second restaurant on Koh Similan to take some of the load off Koh Miang or arrange with tour groups and get them to serve lunch on their boats.

As for the facilities and infrastructure on the islands, I think it’s high time for the DNP to start looking into renewable energy like solar and wind and leave the fuel-powered generator for backup purposes. Structures should be built as eco-friendly as possible, thought out and planned by experts in the private sector, not dinosaurs from the DNP. Sewage and water systems should be installed correctly by professionals the first time to avoid having the rebuild the system every three or five years. Overall the grid should be built to accommodate twice or three times as many visitors as officially denoted, to insure that any future expansion or growth will not require a complete overhaul of all systems.

Of course none of these suggestions will ever make it past the front door of any governor’s meeting at the DNP Headquarters. Old habits die hard and generations of inflexibility, cronyism and corruption have become the norm at the department. It will take a drastic makeover and an infusion of young blood who have no fear of retribution from the higher-ups to push any changes through.

Banning overnight stays on Similan is a good start but if eliminating pollution and damage to the ecosystem in the goal, the arrow has fallen wide of the target. This is, at best a band aid solution.

Hopefully this edict is the first step on the road to legislating “real” eco-tourism in Thai National Parks.

I will however, forever miss seeing the dozens of Nicobar Pigeons sprinting around the campsite of Koh Miang in the early morning. Birders the world over will be disappointed as well. Hopefully in the future, when changes have been instituted and renovations have been undertaken, the brass at the DNP will once again open the doors for nature lovers to have that long overdue honeymoon with Mother Nature on Koh Similan.

Enjoy a Juicy June … if You Dare!

Baby birds are braving the bad weather but birders are bashfully bundled behind bedroom blinds.

-So let’s get out there and start braving the leeches and elements boys and girls!

A Green Broadbill and Javan Frogmouth are nesting at Chong Fah Waterfall in Khao Lak. Both are photographable but will require birders to get their boots muddy and britches possibly bloodied (-Remember the leeches?) Those interested should head over to Khao Lak National Park and ask for Khun Sakda. He can show you both sites but please remember to tip him generously for his efforts. (Tip: a tip should consist of between 300-500 THB. Don’t slouch, this fellow had to work to find and protect these birds!)

At Thung Chalee in Kuraburi there is a nesting white morph Asian Brown Flycatcher and in the same area both Blue winged and Hooded Pitta are nesting and sometimes come out if mealworms are on the menu.

At Sri Phang Nga National Park a Hooded Pitta is nesting somewhere near the campground and seems to have a preference for feeding behind the toilets. There is a nesting Blue Banded Kingfisher somewhere near the stream to the left of the bamboo thicket just past the second checkpoint but so far no one has found it – there are just too many leeches in the grass area enroute to the streambeds. Birders standing near the metal water pipe at the bridge may get lucky and see the bird whizzing past upstream to its feeding grounds.

P.S: There is a Buffy Fish Owl roosting somewhere around there as well. I can’t say where (it’s ludicrous to think I can describe a stakeout in a sea of identical bamboo) but if you really want to see it, please try contacting Khun Narong at the main reception building. – Remember to tip as well please!

At Ao Phang Nga National Park there is a Black and Red Broadbill nest hanging over the stream near the carpark next to the Superintendent Bungalow. Please do not use playback near a nest, simply wait for the birds to return or break out your mobile phone and play Candy Crush while waiting.

– Happy hunting!

Introducing and Understanding Bakers Bulbul

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Late last year Thai birdwatchers received an early Christmas present: a new bird for the Thai lists.

Whether it be a new species or a split, a new bird for the country is always a great reason to celebrate. In the game of birdwatching, adding a newcomer to the list helps to keep the ball rolling. It helps to keep those with fewer numbers busy while muzzling the players with higher numbers from bragging too much. – But birdwatching isn’t just about games, it’s also about science. – And splitting species isn’t just another effort to keep greasing the wheels of the tourism and commercial air travel: it’s a way of helping us comprehend the magnitude of creation and appreciate the immense diversity of Mother Nature.

So I’m going to start out by announcing the latest addition to our Thailand lists: Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce to you Baker’s Bulbul Iole cinnamomeoventris.

– Now to get down to the difficult part of explaining where it came from.

In Round and Lekagul’s 1990 Field Guide to Birds of Thailand, we find a number of bulbuls classified under the genus Hypsipetes. Then in 2007 Craig Robson’s offering by the same name we find all but three species of the genus Hypsipetes have been cleared out and replaced by Iole. (The most recent IOC List for Thailand only has one Hypsipetes remaining.) Birds which had their name tags switched include the Buff Vented Bulbul Iole olivacea*, Olive Bulbul Iole virescens and Grey eyed Bulbul Iole propinqua. Within the Grey eyed Bulbul group we also find three resident subspecies: I.p cinnamomeoventris, I.p lekhakuni and I.p simulator.

It’s around this time in the post when you, the reader, decides it’s time to hit the snooze button and nod off while I ramble on about binomial nomenclature, Phylogenetics and other “cool” stuff in Latin which you probably think I made up on a night out with Jack Daniels. Truth be told, I would very much appreciate that you snoozed off now because I, like you, may (in an abashedly truthful confession) have little idea of what I am talking about. Bottom line, I am completely confounded by this scientific stuff which is WAY above my pay grade. Nothing in highschool could have prepared me for this, and by this I mean the scientific paper which details these groundbreaking discoveries.

If you want to have a crack at it, click here.

Sadly, I didn’t have any “crack” to smoke while attempting to decipher this extremely detailed document, the likes of which could probably pass for a bomb defusing manual. It was around this time that I decided to pick up the phone (or in this case the computer keyboard) and send out a tearful S.O.S to my good friends further up the Life List Ladder. -And like all good friends do, someone threw a lifesaver my way.

So let me have a go at this:

First off, we discovered that everything we thought we knew about these bulbuls was let out to pasture. These Little Brown Jobs (LBJ) turned out to be a much bigger handful than we expected.

As you may have already guessed, Bakers Bulbul is (was) a subspecies of Grey eyed Bulbul which has been upgraded to its own full species. Here comes the twist: after DNA investigation, cinnamomeoventris is actually closer related to Olive Bulbul I. virescens than it is to Grey eyed Bulbul I. propinqua, meaning it should have been a subspecies of virescens instead propinqua? – Huh???

So to make it clear:

1: Grey eyed Bulbul is no longer a southern bird. The three remaining I. propinqua subspecies are found only in the north and northeast (I.p propinqua), east (I.p simulator) and west (I.p lekhakuni).
2: Any Grey eyed Bulbuls found in the south are now known as “Bakers BulbulI.p cinnamomeoventris.

So we’re done here, right? – Buckle up fellow birders, we’re just getting started!

Now comes the fun part: identifying the bird.

As its name suggests, the Grey eyed Bulbul (now Bakers Bulbul) has a grey eye (or whitish, depending on what art school you graduated from in kindergarten). –Sounds easy to identify, right? –WRONG! Let me remind you that the Red eyed Bulbul, a bulbul appreciated for its wine-tinted oculus is one of THREE species which have red eyes, the other two being the Olive winged and Spectacled Bulbul. Misidentification is rife among the uninitiated and numerous first-timers to Thailand and naïve photographers have fallen prey to this misleading name. –Ask Facebook if you don’t believe me.

So back to the Grey eyed Bulbul: This is a bird which completely lives up to its LBJ namesake. Its brown all over, has no complicated song, moves around in bunches and chirps and burps like the rest of them. It would be easy if there were only one type of boring bulbul to hang with but no, Mother Nature in all her impish knavery had to throw in another near-identical LBJ: the Buff vented Bulbul I. olivacea.

I. olivacea is another can of worms I don’t want to pry open at this time but readers should be aware that this is another family which is under investigation and may soon spawn a whole new set of splits themselves. (Please also refer to the footnote at the bottom which covers the issue of scientific name changes being tossed around.) Basically the whole thing wouldn’t be an issue for local birders except that (again, THANK YOU Mother Nature) distribution of both I. olivacea and I.p cinnamomeoventris overlap in southern Thailand.

-At least according to the map included in the paper:

Screenshot of distribution map from the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society paper on Phylogeography of bulbuls in the genus Iole. Copyright belongs to the original owner. No copyright infringement intended.

The distribution map included in the paper was, in my opinion, the simplest way of explaining the split and helped to explain things in a much more down-to-earth manner. Like they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

According to this map both I. olivacea and I.p cinnamomeoventris can be found from Chumphon south to Songkhla and the border with Malaysia. Some birders have claimed to have found both species at sites such as Ngao and Sri Phang Nga National Park. I am fairly certain that I have seen both species at different locations along the west coast but ever since I started photographing bulbuls three years ago I have still never photographed Iole olivacea in the region. Dave Sargeant believes that they are present further south in Hala Bala but are not present further north of Songkhla and judging by my recent experiences I tend to agree with him.

So how do we differentiate between the two in the field? I’ll try to sum it up in a very simple way so as to avoid the need for coffee, paracetamol or brain-replacement surgery.

Let’s start with the Grey eyed Bulbul (now known as Bakers Bulbul). Assuming that the Grey eyed should be easily told apart from the Buff vented Bulbul by simply looking at the color of the eye is a mistake many birders (including myself) have fallen for. Why? –Well, both species have whitish eyes.

So what are we looking for here?

A clue of what to look for can be seen in the illustrations found in Robson’s Field Guide to Birds of Thailand:

Screenshot taken from Craig Robsons Birds of Thailand (2007). Copyright Craig Robson and New Holland Publishers. No copyright infringement intended.

Yes, the vent.

Drawings however, can be misleading and may I remind you that while the text describes four subspecies of propinqua, only two illustrations are shown. That itself should make a birder wary of leaning too hard on the illustration when attempting to differentiate between the two.

Andy Pierce, a longtime birder in Thailand once asked me how I differentiated Grey eyed from Buff breasted, to which I confidently responded “By looking at the vent”. Childish enthusiasm may have saved the day for me back then but I later found out that despite my lucky conclusion, the issue was a much deeper one than I had even begun to comprehend.

According to Andy, photographic examination of the vent of Iole olivacea (Buff vented Bulbul) will show faint scaling on the sides of the vent with a pale yellow center and a very light brown on the sides of the vent and a darker center closer to the under tail coverts.

I say photographic because unless you are holding the bird in your hand or have your face uncomfortably close to its privates, you’re most likely not going to pick up these subtle markings.

I.p cinnamomeoventris (Bakers Bulbul) will show (at times) a darker vent which contrasts with the belly. There is no scaling on the vent, which is a uniform color throughout.

Theoretically if the birder has really close views of the bird at the best angle with perfect lighting the whole session should be a wrap. Of course we know how that usually works out. What happens in a perfect world … well, only happens in a perfect world.

To simplify things we turn to our failsafe which happens to be bird calls. This is simply the best and quickest way to properly sort one from the other. For that reason, I have included the call of I.p cinnamomeoventris along with that of I. olivacea. Both are very similar but the call of I.p cinnamomeoventris is more drawn out than that of I.p olivaceaStudy it carefully please.

Bakers Bulbul, though formally announced as a new species, is still being researched and a complete paper will be published on the matter in the future. Keep an eye out for more additions and changes coming over the horizon as it seems there is a lot more we can learn about these boorish bulbuls.

I would like to thank Dave Sargaent for his help in explaining the paper and sharing his findings with me. Andy Pierce helped explain the identification of Iole olivacea and Phillip Round shared the link to the paper as well as information on the split with me.

* Buff Vented Bulbul was formerly known as Iole olivacea and while some still use the name, others have declared it invalid, choosing to go with Charlotte’s Bulbul Iole charlottae. There are three subspecies: I.c crypta, I.c perplexa and I.c charlottae. Of the three, I.c crypta is found in southern Thailand and is the one most likely to take on the mantle of Buff vented Bulbul.

Farewell Spring, Hello Umbrella

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Blame it on El Nino. Blame it on global warming. Blame it the gods of weather or whoever you want but 2018 is not going to break the trend by returning to the “predictable” season calendar we grew up with since Copernicus cracked coconuts at Krakow.

Whacky weather seems to be predicting that rain will arrive by May but then again, it’s whacky weather. -Are you really going to believe a suggestion after five years of “mental” meteorological spasms?

Summer storms ravaged much of Thailand throughout the hot season this year and what a hot season it was! No doubt without the rains which brought temporary relief we would have no doubt seen the mercury top 42 degrees in some northeast hotspots. It hit 38 degrees in Phuket once – at least according to my home weather station (which consists of a 20 baht weather thermometer and nothing else) and I can tell you for certain that there was nothing else I longed for but a cold glass of water.

Certainly the birds felt the same way.

A small water dish placed in a shady spot near a fruiting tree in my yard attracted Yellow vented Bulbuls, Common and White vented Myna, Oriental Magpie Robin, Olive backed Sunbird, Brown throated Sunbird and Eurasian Koel – practically the entire neighborhood and a few more. No bathers, just drinkers.

The summer storms seem to have confused some birds as well. Banded Pitta disappeared as early as the first week of April after three days of rain. The hide outside Sri Phang Nga National Park started getting quiet around the 2nd and the following week was visited by a Blue winged Pitta – a sure sign that the Banded Pitta season was completely finished.

Blue winged Pitta isn’t hanging out at that site though – visitors who want to photograph the Blue winged Pitta and Hooded Pitta should head over to Tung Chalee substation. Apparently the rangers have hides for both birds at the station.

White Crowned Hornbill was found nesting at Tung Chalee while a Bushy Crested Hornbill was also found nesting, at Sapan Pra Aram early this month. The hornbills are nearing the end of their nesting cycle and the chicks look ready to break out of the nest soon.

Farewell winter visitors: Brown Shrike was last seen on the 18th and Grey Wagtail last reported from Phang Nga Municipal Park on the 6th.

Still present migrants: a single Crab Plover was still around at Songkran.

Trip Report: Sri Phang Nga & Klong Saeng – 5-6/4/18

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BIRD9110From the 5-6 of April I accompanied Jeff and Louise on my first two-day birding trip of the year.

Our trip would take us to Sri Phang Nga and Khao Sok. This was Jeff and Louise’s first visit to Thailand.

Summer storms (locally known as the mango rains) had peppered the area with sporadic rainfall a few days prior to us setting out. Despite the searing heat, the inner forest was still very wet and this played a pivotal role in the outcome of our birding days.

DAY 1: SRI PHANG NGA & KHAO SOK

After picking up Jeff and Louise we headed over to Sri Phang Nga National Park. Most birders who are after the Banded Pitta would stop over at Samarn’s hide but we opted to skip it as he reported the bird had been absent from the hide for a few days due to the rain. We decided to try our luck in the park and see if the former stakeout would have better luck.

We started by looking for Green Broadbill but the bird was not in the area or responsive to playback. We did see a few Golden bellied Gerygone and I picked up an impressive collection of leeches as well.

At the clearing we failed to connect with Whiskered Treeswift and with little activity in the area, headed down into the trail.

The forest was very damp and there were few calls. Our vigil at the customary Chestnut naped Forktail site was uneventful and the hour spent at the pitta stakeout netted only Abbott’s Babbler, White rumped Shama and Pin striped Tit Babbler. Birds heard calling included Black and Yellow Broadbill and Great Hornbill.

A pair of Banded Kingfishers were calling in the canopy and after some effort we managed to find a female.

Back at the clearing we trolled the area for some birds and managed to attract a few Banded Broadbills. Sadly we never saw any of them as they decided to stay in the trees beyond the brook. Happily for us we were able to connect with the Chestnut naped Forktail which flew upstream as we were looking for the broadbills.

On the way back to the main office we passed a Lesser Fish Eagle perched at eye level staring into the river.

Lunch was taken at the cafeteria where we enjoyed Thai food while peering through the boughs of the fruiting tree right above us. Stripe throated Bulbul, Streak eared Bulbul and Black headed Bulbul were a few of the birds seen.

After lunch we made our way to Takuapa River where we spotted the River Lapwing as well as Red Wattled Lapwing, Common Greenshank, Little Egret and Wood Sandpiper.

From there we made the long drive to Cheio Laan Lake where we boarded a boat to take us to Smiley Lodge, our destination for the night.

Along the way we spotted Green billed Malkoha, Oriental Pied Hornbill, Great Hornbill and Osprey.

That night we planned to head out on the lake to find Buffy Fish Owl but a strong storm moved in just minutes before we were due to depart. After waiting nearly two hours for the wind and rain to die down we called it a day and went to bed.

Raucous revelry on the part of a group of vacationing teachers kept me up past midnight but it allowed me to find a Buffy Fish Owl which miraculously appeared at the back of the lodge and continued calling well into the early morning.

DAY 2: CHEIO LAAN LAKE

After breakfast we headed straight out to Tum Jia, hoping to find hornbill. Jeff had spotted a pair of Great Hornbills behind the lodge in the morning and a Stork billed Kingfisher was perched just a few meters from the bungalows on the north side of the lodge.

Along the way we spotted a Crested Serpent Eagle sitting quietly on an old tree in the water. The bird ignored us as we took pictures and allowed us to get quite close to it.

At Tum Jia we heard both Bushy Crested and White Crowned Hornbill calling. We spotted the former but the latter proved to be elusive.

At the end of the canal we got a brief glimpse of Banded Woodpecker flying overhead and found Greenish Iora, Whiskered Treeswift and Black naped Monarch.

On the other side of Tum Jia we ran into a group of vocal Black and Yellow Broadbills and managed to lure one into a tree near us, making it our first and only broadbill for the trip.

After lunch we headed back to the pier and from there made our way back to Khao Sok.

IN CONCLUSION

Despite dipping on the Banded Pitta we were lucky to have connected with Banded Kingfisher, Chestnut naped Forktail and Lesser Fish Eagle. We also faced unpredictable rain and scorching heat but still managed to see a fair number of birds. I congratulate Jeff for the effort he put into birding and to Louise for putting up with the leeches and other discomforts we faced.

Birding Log: Ao Phang Nga & Thai Muang – 30/3/18

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On the 30th I went out with Mark for a day of photographing birds in Phang Nga.

We started the day at Ao Phang Nga National Park.

The tide was very high and the Brown winged Kingfishers were not at their usual perch but we managed to find a pair flying in and out of the forest behind the rangers accommodations.

Birding inside the national park was slow so we took a break and went looking in the mangroves behind the Tourist Center. Here we found a solitary Ruddy Kingfisher at rest and connected with five Mangrove Pitta, one of which came close to investigate.

Back at the national park we found birding got a little better with Mangrove Pitta, Black and Red Broadbill, Common Flameback and Olive winged Sunbirds seen.

At the mangrove walkway outside Phang Nga town we found a Mangrove Pitta with nesting material in its mouth. The bird allowed us to get close and get some photographs of it.

After lunch we stopped over at the municipal park to see what was around.

No bee eaters were seen and the usually accommodating Indian Roller was perched high in a dead tree. We were lucky and came across a fruiting tree which played host to Streak eared Bulbul, Black naped Oriole, Purple backed Starling and Coppersmith Barbet.

Our last stop for the day was at Thai Muang where we found both Spotted Wood Owls at roost as well as two Indian Rollers perched high on a cement pole.

In the end we managed to have a pretty fruitful day despite having to endure the blistering heat which pushed the mercury to 36 degrees.

Click here for a complete list of birds seen on the trip (PDF attachment)

‘Tis the Season to be Fruity

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If ever there was a season for fruiting trees, it’s now.

The substation at Suan Mai Waterfall near Kuraburi reported the fruiting tree in front of the station has produced for the first time since its astonishing resurrection after being struck by lightning a few years back. The tree is attracting Scaly breasted Bulbul and Grey bellied Bulbul, perhaps the two most attractive bulbul species in southern Thailand. The size of the tree means there is a limited amount of fruit available so photographers should get over there immediately if they want to photograph these bulbuls.

A fruiting tree in the municipal park in Phang Nga town is attracting green pigeons, starlings, bulbuls and barbets. The tree is on the east side of the lake and low enough to allow birders and photographers to get photos. A word of advice: don’t stand under the tree. Along with ant activity, most of the birds will shy away from visiting. –Especially the starlings.

The giant fig tree in front of the exercise park in Thai Muang (where the Spotted Wood Owl hangs out) is also due to ripen in the coming week or two.

Nesting records so far include a pair of Asian Fairy Bluebirds and two pairs of White rumped Shama in Sri Phang Nga National Park (seen on the 19/3) and a pair of Brown winged Kingfishers preparing a hole at Ao Phang Nga (30/3). A Mangrove Pitta was seen gathering nesting material at the mangrove walkway outside Phang Nga town on the same day.

I would like to implore birders who are visiting the mangrove walkway to please refrain from playing playback at this time. There are two pairs of pitta building nests here and both can be found relatively easy without the need for playback – just walk around and keep a sharp eye out for movement and you’ll eventually bump into one. If you really need to play playback, be sparing and use as little as possible. Last year one couple abandoned their nest, I’m assuming from the stress of hearing so much playback.

Local birds seen include a White thighed Falconet outside of the Thai Muang Hospital on the 31st and a Purple Sunbird snitching bananas at Muang Jomtong neighborhood in Phuket on the 27th.

Visiting birder Pedro Menendez reported finding a Green Broadbill at Sri Phang Nga on the 27th as well as River Lapwing and Great Hornbill near the Takuapah River on the following day.

Birding Log: Sri Phang Nga and Laem Pakarang – 19/3/18

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It’s not every day that you go on a birdwatching trip and find two of the best-looking birds in the south and an endangered migrant. Yesterday seemed to be the exception.

Yesterday I went out with Javier and Elle to Sri Phang Nga National Park. We started the day at Samarn’s bird hide outside the park. Minutes after arriving we already got the Chinese Blue Flycatcher and a pair of Siberian Blue Robins at the watering hole. The female Banded Pitta showed up twice but the male decided to hang out behind the hide for nearly an hour before coming in to drink and eat.

After success there we moved on to the national park in search of the Chestnut naped Forktail.

Along the track I spotted a male Asian Fairy Bluebird and not long after heard the distinct call of Crested Jays. A little playback had the pair rushing in to investigate. –Another very good bird and it was only 11 AM!

The day was already getting hot and we headed to the campsite in search of the nesting frogmouth which was there last week. The birds must have fledged quickly because the whole family had moved on. While there we spotted a Great Hornbill calling from the ridge and were able to get good looks at it before it took to flight.

Down the trail we ran into a White rumped Shama building a nest.

At the river we waited for a while but with no activity we decided to move on to the old pitta hide. There we met a flurry of activity with Abbott’s Babbler, Chestnut winged Babbler and a pair of White rumped Shama foraging for food. A call caught my attention: a Scarlet rumped Trogon. I’d heard this bird many times at the park but never got good views. A little look around the branches overhead and what do you know, the bird was literally sitting above our heads!

Scarlet rumped TrogonScarlet rumped Trogons are not always playful but this fellow hung around for a long time and gave excellent looks. I wish the same could be said for the photo opportunities!

While looking at the Scarlet rumped Trogon, the male Banded Pitta decided to show up as well! –Life is full of tough choices but this was the ultimate heartbreak for me – which one deserves my attention?

After a while we said goodbye to both birds and headed back to the campsite for lunch.

By now it was past 2 PM and we decided to visit Sok River and Laem Pakarang before heading back to the hotel.

At the Sok River a number of workers were busy clearing debris off the bridge. This obviously scared most of the birds off but we still found a single River Lapwing.

Lesser Crested TernAt Laem Pakarang we found the tide moving out and the birds dispersed over a wide area. A little observation netted us the prized Crab Plover feeding alongside a pair of Great Egrets. Terek Sandpiper was a happy find for Javier and a number of Greater and Lesser Crested Terns were seen in the distance as well.

One strange bird caught my attention: calling Javier over, he snapped a photo and our eyes grew wide when we discovered it was a Frigatebird! –And so close to shore!

Javier and Elle headed back to their hotel but the thought of this strange Frigatebird kept haunting me so I decided to drop by a second time before heading home to see if I could get a second look.

Local fishermen were pulling in their nets, attracting terns of all shapes and sizes. I assumed the frigate would be too far out to photograph so I left the camera in the car. – Bad mistake. The second I got onto the beach I saw the Frigatebird within a few meters of the shore. Kicking myself for my stupidity, I ran back to collect my camera but when I returned the bird was already nearly 500 meters offshore and moving quickly in the direction of the horizon.

I managed to grab a few shots and after some deliberation, guessed that it may be a Christmas Island Frigatebird. Later emails to Dave Sargeant and Peter Ericsson confirmed the ID.

Banded Pitta, Scarlet rumped Trogon and Christmas Island Frigatebird … now that is a heck of a haul for a birding day!

Thanks to Peter Ericsson and Dave Sargeant for helping to confirm the identification of the frigatebird.

Click here for a complete list of birds seen on the trip (PDF attachment)

Breeding Birds and Migration Movements

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It’s March and love is in the air. –At least for those who spend a lot of time in the air.

Birds are starting to breed everywhere – including a few in my backyard. I few observations I have made include a Yellow vented Bulbul sitting on two eggs right next to my kitchen; a pair of Black headed Bulbuls nesting in Kurod subdistrict, Phang Nga on the 8th; Streaked Bulbuls collecting nesting materials on the same date at the same location; an Oriental Magpie Robin stuffing grass into a playground playset at my house on the 10th; a pair of Blue eared Barbets putting finishing touches on their home at Tung Chalee on the 12th; a Puff throated Babbler was seen collecting food and feeding a female in Sri Phang Nga on the 7th.

A Bushy Crested Hornbill was seen blocking up the entrance to a nest late last month near Sapan Pra-Aram, Kruaburi district of Phang Nga. A single Oriental Pied Hornbill was visiting a fruiting tree at Tung Chalee on the 12th, I assume also collecting food for its mate.

A Javan Frogmouth was found sitting on a nest at Chong Fah Waterfall on the 10th.

Other birds have nearly completed their breeding cycle. A mother Javan Frogmouth with two young were observed at Sri Phang Nga national park on the 12th. Both young are nearly ready to fledge. A juvenile Red bearded Bee Eater was seen at Tung Chalee on the same day. The youngster lacked the red beard and pink on the crown.

Other birds are still not “feeling the love” yet.

The Banded Pitta at Sri Phang Nga is starting to bring his girlfriend along on his daily walks but still doesn’t give her the time of day; in fact he is still rather rude and loves to hog the food and water at the hide, leaving her the scraps to finish off. Looks like more time will be needed to tame the shrew here.

The Black and Red Broadbills at Ao Phang Nga are paired but haven’t yet started construction on their nests.

In other bird news, the two Crab Plovers at Laem Pakarang are still hanging around and don’t seem to be in a hurry leave; Jacobin’s Cuckoo, after disappearing for a few weeks, has reappeared (a different individual perhaps?) and is back at its old stomping grounds at Thai Muang. It was last photographed on the 11th along with a Siberian Thrush which is probably passing through on migration. A possible Little Stint was recorded at Laem Pakarang late last month and seen by a foreign birder on the 7th as well; no photographs were submitted. Malayan Sand Plover and Grey tailed Tattler were seen on the 2nd at Laem Pakarang. A Red crowned Barbet was seen in a fruiting tree at Wat Bang Riang on the afternoon of the 1st.

Special thanks to Khun Danai, Les Pierce, Christopher Bond and Sakda and Samarn (local DNP rangers) for informing us of recent bird activity.

Bird Survey: Kuraburi Water Hole – 9/3/18


Yesterday I made a trip to Phang Nga with a fellow Thai birdwatcher and photographer, Khun Danai, to survey a local waterhole and catalog the birds which frequent it.

We arrived at the site around noon and were ushered into a corner of a local villager’s rubber plantation. Here, streams flow out of the forest into the plantations. These cool, shady embankments near the forest edge are perfect hangout spots for a variety of birds, secluded and safe from prying eyes of predators circling high overhead.

The old watering hole from two years prior was incredibly successful with specials such as Green Broadbill, Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher, Blue winged Leafbird and Maroon Woodpecker. However, this year we will probably not be able to access the site as a herd of elephants moved into the area. Their footprints and feces are present all throughout the stream bed and while they haven’t yet been seen, locals know that despite their large size elephants are masters of disguise. No one wants to take the risk of venturing into the area only to be ambushed by a pack of parading pachyderms.

The new site was located on the steps of a small waterfall in a very shady spot. Immediately after settling into the hides we started hearing activity all around us.

By far the majority of birds we saw at the watering hole were Grey eyed Bulbul. They came in large flocks and completely took over the site. After showering they resorted to raucous games of tag and what appeared to be a competition of “whose mouth is the biggest”.

A careful observation of the bulbuls failed to reveal a single Baker’s Bulbul, a recent split from the Grey eyed Bulbul.

A pair of Streaked Bulbuls also showed up twice, landing both times near the floor as if hunting around for nesting material.

Speaking of nests, a pair of Black headed Bulbuls had built a nest in the vicinity of the watering hole and spent the majority of their time warding off unwanted visitors snooping around near their home.

While sitting in the hides we were alerted to the unmistakable sound of hornbills passing overhead. Three pairs flew over and judging by the wing beats we assume they were Wreathed Hornbills.

Other birds seen included Hairy backed Bulbul, Ochraceous Bulbul, Black crested Bulbul, Pin striped Tit Babbler, Chestnut winged Babbler, Grey throated Babbler and a handsome male Asian Fairy Bluebird.

Near the end of the day Khun Danai taped in a pair of Crested Jays which circled around the hides for a while before heading off up the waterfall.

After comparing notes and talking things over we came to the conclusion that the site has potential but doesn’t have enough variety to keep a birder or photographer occupied for the day.

We plan to visit another nearby site in the future to assess its potential.

Birding Log: Tung Chalee, Sri Phang Nga and Laem Pakarang – 7/3/18

On the 7th I had the pleasure of meeting again with Chris, a birder who I’d gone birding with in previous years.

Chris has been here a few times now and was interested in seeing something new. We decided to try Tung Chalee to see if the Red bearded Bee Eaters and broadbills would be out and about.

We arrived at Tung Chalee at around 8 AM. The morning was hot and I knew the day would get even hotter. The birds seemed to sense it as well as the morning was very quiet with little bird activity.

Most of the fruiting trees had been stripped of their berries for nearly a week and with no figs to attract the birds there was very little activity. Stripe throated Bulbul and Olive backed Sunbird were present and a Bar winged Flycatcher-Shrike was busy hawking insects in a tree.

The usually vocal Black and Yellow Broadbills were nowhere to be seen; could it be because someone chopped down the tree they usually breed in?

In a thicket we came upon a cuckoo and after some observation identified it as Banded Bay Cuckoo. A common bird but one I still hadn’t seen before, the joyous sighting was my second lifer of the year and number 699 for my Thai lists.

It took a while but at last we were able to get the lethargic Red bearded Bee Eater to make an appearance. The bird flew over the campsite to the opposite side of the forest and then returned to its old perch. -Obviously it was not in the mood to meet the paparazzi today.

A big surprise awaited us on the way out: a Lesser Fish Eagle was spotted circling overhead. -Strange the bird would be spotted over plantations and open grasslands instead of the open water and rivers which it usually frequents.

From there we went over to Sri Phang Nga National park to visit a birding hide built by a local ranger outside the park.

Dark storm clouds were moving in and we feared we would not be able to see anything at the hide if the storm unleashed its fury. Thankfully the clouds blew over and not long after we were back to “feeling the heat” once again.

We sat for a few hours and hardly saw anything until we realized what was going on outside the hide: a troop of macaques had moved in and were feeding in the trees and bushes nearby. Soon we found ourselves surrounded and with nothing on hand to defend ourselves, were at the mercy of the monkeys, some of which were already threatening the hide with aggressive behavior.

Thankfully the primates moved on and not long after bird life returned to the pool. Puff throated Babbler and Siberian Blue Robin came by, followed by a merry band of bulbuls such as Stripe throated, Black headed and Red eyed Bulbul.

The chic pool party was rudely interrupted by the appearance of the male Banded Pitta which quickly shooed the partygoers off and ransacked the area for any remaining grubs.

Mrs. Banded Pitta showed up a little while later and finding the pool empty, sauntered in for a little dip.

On the way back to the hotel we decided to stop over at Laem Pakarang to look for the visiting Crab Plover. We were in luck; a photographer had the two birds in front of him near a sandbar and soon we were nearby with our cameras as well.

One was an obvious juvenile and the other looked pretty young as well.

The birds performed beautifully and one even paraded around with a crab in its mouth for a bit. The birds were not shy but did not allow us to come within 20 feet of them, unlike the pair from a few years back which literally ran in front of the cameras.

On the way back to the car we passed another mega rarity: Little Stint. Sadly I was unable to get a shot of the bird before it flew off.

Despite the slow start we ended up having a good day. 48 species were seen and I got a lifer as well!

Click here to see the complete list of birds seen on the trip (PDF attachment)

 

Support the Champions of the Flyaway

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A young birder I took out a year or two ago by the name of Eliraz Divr is looking for your readership and support!

His band of birders are all still in highschool and are avid birders competing in a birding competition in their homeland, Israel. These kids are no pushovers – they are students of the sport and looking to make their mark in the birding community there.

So if you have a moment, stop by their webpage, take a look around and if you have the means to make a donation I’m sure they’ll appreciate it!

Here is the link to their webpage: http://www.champions-of-the-flyway.com/the-little-bastards

Birding Log: North Phuket – 16/2/18


On the 16th I joined Kelvin and Jennifer on a half-day birding trip around Phuket island.

We decided to visit a site on the north of the island near the airport. It’s a former tin mine which was recently sold to a developer.

Locals believe that the developer plans to turn the area into a housing estate or a luxury hotel. How they plan to do this is still a mystery to me since the site sits at the end of Phuket International Airport runway and suffers from extreme noise pollution at all hours of the day.

Upon entering the site we immediately noticed big changes to the area. Dirt paths had been replaced with concrete or gravel roads. Areas had been cleared and signs of heavy machinery at work were noticeable.

Despite all this there was plenty of bird activity. In the ponds near the newly paved roads we found Collared Kingfisher, Little Egret, Common Redshank and two Chinese Egrets.

Further down the road we passed a line of casuarinas which held Oriental Magpie Robin and Common Iora. In the distance we could hear the wail of a young Brown winged Kingfisher calling to its parents for breakfast.

A fig tree with a few dried fruits attracted Coppersmith Barbet, Black naped Oriole, Eurasian Koel and a few Orange breasted Green Pigeons, a special sighting for me since this bird is becoming increasingly scarce in Phuket.

Down by the mangroves we searched for kingfishers and signs of Mangrove Pitta but nothing was calling and the sun was getting hotter. It was good we took the detour however, as it led us straight into a pair of Common Flameback, and the male and female both put on a good show for us.

Down by the only freshwater pond we found a number of Little Grebes and plenty of Lesser Whistling Duck. Kelvin connected with a Grey Heron and Jennifer found a real rarity: an Oriental Darter in full breeding plumage! This would be only the second time I’d seen this bird in Phuket and the first time to find a breeding bird!

A look around the lake revealed eight birds in total. –What an amazing find!

Other birds we spotted in the area that morning included Oriental Honey Buzzard, Scarlet backed Flowerpecker, Ashy Drongo and Greater Coucal.

On the way back I heard a Spotted Wood Owl calling from a thicket but being that it would have been nearly impossible to find, we let it be and will be back for it next time.

A total of 45 species were seen in the morning.

Click here to see the complete list of birds seen on the trip (PDF attachment)