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A Taste and twitch of Thailand ,
Thailand - the land of gentle people, delicious food, sweltering heat, great birds and numerous dogs!
Having a week in Thailand, I decided on 4 days in the Khao Yai National Park to have my first taste of Asian Bird watching. Situated about 200km from Bangkok in the central north of Thailand. Thailand has 16% of its total area under national parks and wildlife reserves. Khao Yai covers 2200km square kilometres with much for the park at elevations of 600 to 1000 metres and covered by tropical broad-leaved evergreen forest. When I approached Pinit Saengkaew, as a guide who had been recommended to me, he informed me that June/July was the rainy season and not good for birding. When I asked about the heat I was informed that Thailand only has two seasons - hot and very hot!
Despite the warning of likely failure in my quest to see the birds of Khao Yai I booked 4 days with Pinit. Leaving Bangkok we travelled for nearly an hour to reach the outskirts of the city which changed to paddy fields where traditional methods of rice farming are still employed. Numerous black-winged stilts, little egrets, Javan pond herons and red-wattled plover fed in the paddy fields. Asian open-bill storks soared high above as we turned down a dirt track that headed to our first Buddhist temple. The trees around the temple were littered with nest platforms made of twigs and most had either 2 or 3 juveniles, which were greyer versions of the whiter adults. The Asian open-bill is about two thirds the size of the African open-bill and it is estimated that about 10 000 pairs nest at this site which until recently was the only breeding colony in Thailand. Also at this site we saw white-vented mynah's and a coppersmith barbet; the latter uttering his repetitive "droop, droop, droop. call much like the tinker barbets of Africa.
Half way to Khao Yai, we turned off to another temple; this time in search of the limestone wren-babbler. Despite an extensive search, we failed to find the wren-babbler but found other species such as Indian roller, greater racket racket-tailed drongo, with its two long whispey outer tail feathers enlarged at the last inch, common tailorbird and striped tit-babbler. Both these latter species were regularly seen in dense shrub and were always the first to investigate "spishing" by us. While wandering around the temple we were greeted and visually challenged by numerous crab eating macaques (monkeys) and dogs which appeared to be well fed strays. Having seen such dogs in large numbers on the roadside, I asked Pinit if the people ate the dogs. Pinit was horrified and explained that the people simply liked having the dogs around their dwellings. The monks take particular good care of the dogs except those which look particularly nasty and sickly as they believe those are the re-incarnations of people who have done evil deeds in a previous life.
An hour later we were at the boundary of the Khao Yai national park where Pinit and I shared a small basic bungalow, which cost B700 per night. With only a few hours of light left we wandered around the neighbourhood property which produced greater hill mynah, rose-breasted parakeets, golden-fronted leaf bird, baya weaver, lineated barbet, spotted and red turtle dove, scaly-breasted munia, plain-bearded sparrow occupying a disused barbet nest and numerous olive-backed sunbirds feeding in the garden shrubs.
While looking for the baya weaves we bumped into a local farmer who Pinit asked about this species. I was surprised when the farmer nodded his head and led us through his fields to a thicket where 3-4 pairs of weavers were nesting. Not only did the bird knowledge and awareness of the local people surprise me, but over the next few days we met numerous Thai bird watchers and photographers. Although I did not understand the language, numerous bird names such as broadbill, woodpecker and kingfisher featured regularly in the conversation. The Thailand bird watching society has about 5000 members, many of who are very active. The farmer who had shown us the baya weavers was a subsistence farmer who had 20 or so cattle with some fields for grazing, six large paddy fields for rice and a small dam where he bred numerous species of fish including a cichlid species and catfish. The fish supplied his family with food and also generated some income at the local market.
Each day we drove to the central area of the park from where we walked along quiet roads and forest trails. I had always wanted to see great hornbills and was thrilled on the first day when we followed their loud "kok" calls to find this magnificent hornbill. Watching them for some time, they appeared to fly only short distances always landing in the top third of the forest canopy. Generally found in pairs, we also watched a single juvenile, which lacked a casque, playing with a large seed pod. Numerous flocks of oriental pied hornbill were seen and heard with most flocks consisting of 8-15 birds. A large fig tree in fruit attracted a flock of thick-billed pigeon and numerous mountain imperial pigeons were seen in flight and heard in the forest. Having told Pinit that I was very keen on the barbets, over the next few days he also fixed his scope on green-eared, moustached and blue-eared that gave us five species for the trip.
Visiting the campsite in the centre of the park we had two hours of very busy birding with species such as fairy-bluebird, scarlet minivet, black-headed, clack-crested, puff-throated and stripe-throated bulbul, white-bellied yuhina, laced woodpecker, green-billed malkoha, and bar-winged flycatcher shrike. One of the local rangers had told Pinit about a dusky broadbill he had seen that morning. Pinit was very excited to hear the call and twenty minutes later we had not one, but three in the scope! A striped kingfisher followed these and while looking at it in the scope I had Pinit say "This is Life!" after which, while I had my eye to the scope, he patted me softly on the back, saying "Lucky, Lucky".
Sitting down for a midday break, there was no real rest as a crested serpent eagle soared above and a pair of vernal hanging parrots landed and proceeded to feed on fruit in the canopy near us. Hearing a typical robin song from the depths of the forest, I imitated it only to have a white-rumped shama find a perch on the forest margin from where he gave me all the verbal abuse he could. Using the "dead time" between 1 and 3pm, we took a walk down to a stream behind the visitor's centre. A harsh, roller like, call from the canopy had Pinit dashing to set up the scope as he proudly announced a blue-bearded bee-eater. This was my first species of forest bee-eater and of the genus Nyctyomis rather than the Merpos that occur in more open country and appear less bold then the former. A little further we were greeted by a bird party which included numerous bulbuls, oriental white-eye, common iora and appearing suddenly an orange-breasted trogon - beautiful as are all trogons. In a tree overhead, a giant black squirrel chattered excitedly at our intrusion. I have never seen such a variety of squirrels with 5 unidentified different species seen on the trip.
That evening we headed for a grassland where we hoped to see great-eared nightjar appear with the setting sun. Perched on a twig beneath the canopy of a lone tree in the grassland we found a stork-billed kingfisher - very aptly named! We also enjoyed the scolding calls of a bright-capped cisticola with its golden cap raised while calling. As the sun set we were not disappointed as a half dozen or so great-eared nightjar showed off their acrobatics as they fed on the wing.
The following morning while looking for a Siamese fireback (pheasant) we were surprised by fantastic views of a red-headed trogon. Once again I heard Pinit whisper "This is Life!" Further down the track I picked up some movement and peering into the shadow of a dark shrub I could see a blue-grey bill which had to belong to a broadbill. The bird moved to a more open area and we had ten minutes of incredible views of a banded broadbill. Pinit also informed of a spiderhunter in the vegetation that stole my attention for a short time before turning back to the broadbill. White-crested laughing thrush and green magpie regularly resonated through the forest and with only brief glimpses of the latter I literally bumped into a group of nine laughing thrush. Having disturbed their bath in a stream they ascended to the canopy from where the entire group scolded me before settling down in two's and three's for soft conversation and mutual preening. Early mornings are always a magical time in a forest but here, apart from all the birdcalls, the white-handed and intermediate gibbons join in the dawn chorus as troops sing out their territorial claims and challenges.
Departing from Khao Yai on my last day, we stopped at an army base at a lower altitude. Here we added species such as Asian pied, chestnut-tailed and black-collared starling, green bee-eater, black drongo, long-tailed shrike, racket-tailed treepie and magpie robin. A small wetland provided cinnamon-winged jacana, lesser whistling duck and white-breasted water hen.
I ended the short trip with a total of 118 species (for which Pinit apologised as it was the wrong season!). I would really like to recommend Pinit as a guide to any bird watcher wishing to visit Thailand. He is not only a mine of knowledge about Thailand but also an excellent birdman and a very pleasant person to be with. Despite his concerns about his ability to converse, I found his English more than adequate. Pinit can be contacted at email@example.com
Prior to visiting Thailand, I had been warned to be careful of what I ate. Food and food stalls are abundant in Thailand and despite being very cheap, there are numerous "safe" places to eat with delicious Thai meals available. Having only seen the tip of the iceberg with the promise of numerous hornbill, pitta, sunbird and flowerpecker species, long-tailed broadbill, pheasant-tailed jacana and a host of other species still to be seen, I intend to return to Thailand, with a small group, to do a more comprehensive two and half week trip with Pinit in 2004. Anybody wishing to join express an interest in joining me can contact me at
A Field Guide to the Birds of South-East Asia
The Birds of Thailand