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AMAZING THAILAND AND IT'S AMAZING BIRDS
An illustrated article by a bird expert about Thai birds. Part of a major net resource on Thailand. Includes hotel bookings and amazing tour opportunities.
by Tony Ball
Illustrations (beautiful water colours by Yurie Ball)
You think that's overkill ? Just wait till you hear your first Great Hornbill with it's harsh and almost deafening call, wait till you hear it take off with it's "whoosh-whoosh-whoosh " and then accuse me of overkill! The hair on your arms will stand on end! But let's start at the beginning. Thailand has more than 900 documented species of birds and of these approximately one third are migrants but it's not as simple as that. Some species are migrant, resident and breeding visitors. One of these migrants, the Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica), was recently found to be a resident also in a small area around Doi Angkhang on the Burmese border in the north of Thailand. Consider, also, that Thailand is host to almost 10% of the world's species and then you will understand why it is a "must" on any birdwatcher's itinerary.
There are well over 100 protected areas in the country and they are categorised as national parks, wildlife sanctuaries or non-hunting areas. Some of these have breeding programmes which include the breeding of species on the endangered list. The infrastructure is such that most of these places are easily accessible by road, train or plane. Some are closed to the public, which to my mind is good as it means that Thailand is taking it's conservation of wildlife seriously but even these can be entered with special permission, for research and other such reasons. The main ones, though, are definitely open to the public and very well run with the welfare of the fauna uppermost in the minds of the national park officials.
Probably the most popular national park is Khao Yai and for the very good reason that it is overflowing with bird-life. Bird-life apart, the park is ales noted for it's tigers and elephants and if you were to pop into the visitors centre you would see the stuffed remains of a man eating tiger that attacked two park officials and was shot for it's sins. There are about twenty tigers in the park and possibly around two hundred elephants, signs of which can be found in the shape of their huge droppings along-side the road.
Khao Yai national park covers an area of 2168 sq.km. and 318 species of birds have been documented in the area. The highest point in the park is 1351 m. so some mountain species can be found. Most birdwatching is done around the head-quarter's area and you don't really have to go much farther afield to find most of the different species. There are 1 1 trails for the more adventurous and all of these were made by elephants which still use them, most of them are marked with different colours of paint applied to the trees.
Some of the more spectacular birds you will see are the hornbills and there are 4 species in the park, the Cireat Hornbill (Buceros bicorm's, 122 cm.), the Wreathed Hornbill (Rhyticeros undulatus, 100 cm.), the Oriental Pied Hornbill (Anthracoceros albirostris, 70 em.) and the Brown Hornbill (Ptilolaemus tickelli, 74 cm.). 5 different species of Barbets (Megalaima) with their brightly coloured plumage abound in the park, their ringing, repetitive calls will be heard more often than the bird is seen. Flocks of Fairy Bluebirds (lrena puella) will be seen in flowering or fruiting trees, they are very noisy birds with their piercing whistling call. The list is almost endless. Accommodation in the park is difficult to come by and special permission must be obtained in advance but there are plenty of hotels and other accommodation just outside the park. The park itself is a 3 hour drive from Bangkok.
Next you would move up to the north and base yourself in Chiang Mai, a city built around a beautiful old moated town. Parts of the old wall remain to this day and altogether it is a very attractive place, last year Chiang Mai celebrated it's 700th. anniversary. Here you will certainly want to visit Doi Inthanon, Thailand's highest mountain at 2565 m. and although in winter it can be extremely hot in the plains, on the summit of this mountain the, temperature can go down to close to 0 degrees centigrade, warm clothing is strongly recommended. This national park is 60 km. south-west of Chiang Mai and can be treated as a day trip but for the serious birdwatcher 3 or 4 days would be more appropriate. 382 species have been documented on Doi Inthanon, as many as the total bird population of some countries.
The lower reaches of the mountain, up to about 1000 m. is scrub, grassland and dipterocarp and although at first glance there seems to be a lack of birds they are there and in quite large numbers. The early morning, around sunrise or just after, is the best time to do this area as the birds are more active and , of course , there is the "dawn chorus" to be heard at this time. It is then that you will realise that it is indeed a well populated area. Starting at about 1000 m. we come to the mixed deciduous and evergreen trees. This carries on up to the summit where you will come across pine and remnants of the rain-forest that used to be there. At the summit itself (46km.) there is a very interesting spaghnum bog with gnarled old trees festooned with spaghnum moss. Back down at the 31km. mark (ca. 1200 m.) you will find the park head-quarters and there you will also fine accommodation. Bungalows that sleep @ persons cost, at the present time, 300 baht or you can hire a tent at 50 baht which is quits a pleasant alternative albeit a little cold during the winter.
Birdwise everyone comes to see one bird in particular and that is the Green-tailed Sunbird (Aethopyga nipalensis). This bird is endemic to Thailand and can only be found in the upper reaches of Doi Inthanon and there it is very common. But the other birds are not to be ignored, there is the Ashy-throated Warbler (Phylloscopus macullpennis) which, again, in Thailand can only be found on the upper reaches of Doi Inthanon. This is one of only two Leaf Warblers that are resident in Thailand, the rest are migrants, one wonders why. One of the best birdwatching sites is the jeep track at 37.5 km. (ca. 1700m.) and it is here that you might be lucky enough to see the rare Purple Cochoa (Cochoa purpurea), 1 have seen it there 3 or 4 times, you might also see it's relative the Green Cochoa (Cochoa viridis). This bird is listed as uncommon and 1 have only seen it once, so maybe 1 was lucky with the Purple Cochoa. This jeep track is good at any time of the day as it is well shaded with some very thick primeval looking forest. Here also you will find 2 skulkers, the Pygmy Wren-Babbler (Pnoepyga pusilla) and the Slaty-bellied Tesia (Tesia olivea), these two are more often heard than seen. One of my favourite birds can also be found here and that is the Long-tailed Broadbill (Psarisomus dalhousiae), it is straight out of a Walt Disney cartoon with it's finely delineated multi-coloured markings. 1 have found it to be a very curious bird and sometimes I find myself peering up at it as it peers down at me. It's colours include black, yellow, light green, dark green and blue, working from head to tail.
The next spot is closer to home, my home that is, in Chiang Mai. This is the Doi Suthep-Pui national park and it is the mountain that forms a back-drop to the city of Chiang Mai. This is a good place for birdwatchers in a hurry, you can be out of your hotel and getting some good birdwatching in less than half an lour. Doi Pui the higher part of the park is 1685m. and therefore lacks some of the mountain species to be found on Dol Inthanon but number-wise 326 species have been documented on Dol Suthep-Pul. For the, tourist there is a very beautiful temple with a golden stupa at the 14km. mark (ca.900m.), this can be seen from all over Chiang Mai. Farther up at kilometre 19 is the King's palace and the public is allowed into the very extensive gardens at the week-end and public holidays, well worth the visit.
For the birdwatcher the first main stop would be at 16kin. where there is a dirt car-park on the left and a few metres up on the right there is a track. This track, or at least the first 100 metres or so. is very productive. The birds most often seen down this track are the Asian Paradise Flycatcher (Terpsiphone Paradisi) with it's very long tail that always seems to be trying to catch up with the bird as it dodges about in the air chasing insects. The Black-naped Monarch (Hypothymis azurea) with it's harsh, squeaky call. The Scaly-breasted Partridge (Arborophila chloropus) and it's waning call which builds up to a crescendo of see-sawing whistles. Not so common but seen on the same track is the Orange-headed Thrush (Zoothera citrina), this is one of the top songsters with it's very varied song produced in repeated phrases just in case you didn't get it the first time.
The next good spot is on the road leading up to the Doi Pui summit, look out for a sign that reads Sun Khu. Here you will find a stand of pines and quite often 1 come across the Yellow-cheeked Tit (Parus spilonotus) and not so often, the Great Tit (Parus major). During the winter a Chestnut-bellied Rock-Thrush (Monticola rufiventris) can also be seen in the area. The Grey Treepip (Dendrocitta forinosae) with it's love metallic call is also a regular in the area. Roadside birdwatching can be very productive from the bottom of the mountain to the top. 1 can usually count on seeing between 50-60 species in a morning in winter when the migrants are here.
Finally another "must" is Doi Angkhang on the Burmese border due west of Chiang Rai. This area is the southern-most range of some of Asia's northern birds and they can only be found here, in Thailand. Two of the more common one's are the White-browed Laughingthrush (Garrulax sannio) and the Brown-breasted Bulbul (Pycnonotus xanthorrhous). The Giant Nuthatch (Sitta ma gna) can also be seen, usually in stands of pines and if you are very lucky you might come across the rare Hwne's Pheasant (Syrmaticus humiae). As far as accommodation is concerned you have a choice of the extremes only. An "A" frame bamboo hut would cost about 100 baht or the Doi Angkhang Nature Resort which would cost you 1400 baht. The advantage of both of these accommodations is that they are right in the middle of the birdwatching area (at 1400m.).
So, any serious birdwatcher must include Thailand in their itinerary, as 1 mentioned Khao Yai is the number one national park in Asia, all the other parks have their points, solitude, rare birds and beautiful surroundings. Thailand also has history which is still visually with us in the shape of old cities and their temples and, of course, it is very affordable.
Special bird-watching assignments can be arranged through Gem Travel. Programmes will be put on this site at a later stage. Meanwhile please email as for details.
illustrations (beautiful water colours by
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