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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Thailand: The Northwest

2020 Narrative

In Brief: Our trip to northwest Thailand recorded some 295 species this year. Notable highlights included Greylag Goose (rubirostris) Ruddy Shelduck (pair), Red-crested, Common, and a very rare male Baer’s Pochard, Oriental Darters, Long-billed Plover, a female White-rumped Pygmy-falcon, Collared Falconet, Violet Cuckoo, Giant Nuthatch, two adult male Ultramarine Flycatchers, Scarlet-faced Liocichla, Grey-sided Thrushes, White-crowned and Slaty-backed Forktails, Yellow-bellied Flowerpecker, Black-throated Tit, seven species of woodpeckers, including Black-headed and Lesser Yellownape, and a party of Coral-billed Scimitar-babblers. Our one memorable non-avian highlight was five Yellow-throated Martens seen on one day on the northeast side of Doi Lang.

In Detail: Our tour began with an early evening dinner and a buffet dinner at the Novotel in Bangkok. We left the next morning for Chiang Mai where we were greeted by our driver and support team. After getting our luggage organized, we headed south to Mae Ping National Park, a fine preserve with extensive mature deciduous forest.  Stopping along the way near Lamphun for lunch we noted a Green-billed Malkoha.  Just before the entrance a Common Emerald Dove flew across the road. Around the park headquarters and entrance, we found many birds, the highlight being two Violet Cuckoos. Other specie noted there included Pin-striped Tit-babbler, White-rumped Shama, Purple Sunbird, a female Indochinese Flycatcher, and two Olive-backed Pipits. We saw two silent warblers that were either Radde’s, or Yellow-streaked. These two brownish warblers are extremely similar and are best told by call. They are winter visitants and are about equally as numerous. Driving into the park we did well with woodpeckers, noting Grey-capped, Common Flameback, and three colorful Black-headed. White-bellied Woodpecker was heard well but escaped a visual detection. Golden-fronted Leafbirds and Rufous Treepies were well seen as were two Great Barbets and an adorable Collared Falconet. 

The next morning, we arrived at Mae Ping early and the spent the entire morning birding there. Highlights included Crested Serpent-eagle, Shikra, more Black-headed Woodpeckes, Collared Falconet, Grey-headed Parakeet, Black-winged Cuckooshrike, Swinhoe’s Minivets with a male Rosy Minivet, Black-hooded Orioles, Red-billed Blue Magpies, Blue-winged Leafbirds, a single out-of-place Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo (normally higher in the mountains, perhaps a migrant from the north), Velvet-fronted Nuthatch (3),  Blue Whistling –thrush (black-billed nominate caeruleus subspecies), and Puff-throated Bulbul. The best bird was a well-seen perched female White-rumped Pygmy-falcon, a scarce and very local Indochinese endemic. After lunch we headed north towards Doi Inthanon, stopping along the way at Ban Hong non-hunting area. Here we saw many Green Peafowl, including males with the tail fully spread. Before checking into our rooms, we stopped at a nearby site where we saw 25 Blossom-headed Parakeets coming in to roost.

Our intention the following morning was to head to the summit of Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest mountain at 8145’. Unfortunately, there was a bike marathon race, and we got no further than the park headquarters. We retreated to Wachírathan Waterfall where we spent the next several hours. Traffic was closed both ways and we were stuck. Our main goal was White-headed Bulbul, but the red flowering trees weren’t in bloom, and we missed them, as did other birders in the area during that time frame. We did see a female Plumbeous Water-redstart and a stunning White-crowned Water-redstart. Other species noted included Scarlet Minivet, Grey-eyed and Puff-throated Bulbuls, Little Spiderhunter, White-rumped Munia, and a singing male Blue-throated Flycatcher, the first one we’ve encountered on a tour in probably two decades. Late in the morning we headed east to a raptor site but didn’t see much other than some Black Kites. Late in the day we watched birds from Mr. “T’s” platform and saw many birds including Red-wattled and Grey-headed Lapwings in the flooded rice fields below, along with Lineated Barbets, Black-hooded Oriole, and Blossom-headed Parakeets. An Asian Barred-Owlet was spotted nearby near dusk.

The next morning, the crowds had left, and we headed on up to the summit where we spent much of the day, encountering a fine variety of birds. These included Ashy Woodpigeon, Rufous-throated Partridge, Yellow-bellied Fairy-fantail, Slaty-bellied Tesia, Bar-throated Minla, Rufous-winged Fulvetta, Ashy-throated, Buff-barred, and Blyth’s Leaf warblers, Pygmy Cupwing, White-crowned Forktail, Snowy-browed Flycatcher, Grey-sided and Eyebrowed Thrushes, Himalayan Shortwing, and Mrs. Gould’s and Green-tailed Sunbirds, the latter an endemic subspecies (angkanensis) limited to the summit of Doi Inthanon, and perhaps best considered a separate species. Amongst the Blue Whistling-thrushes noted we saw was one temminckii with pale blue spotting above and on the greater secondary coverts. It is a winter visitant from the north. Our best find was a stunning Yellow-bellied Flowerpecker, a species we normally miss. Later in the afternoon we made a few spots, noting a perched flock of Speckled Woodpigeons near the temple along with Golden-throated Barbets and Striated Bulbuls.

On our last day at Doi Inthanon we visited a blind near Siriphum Waterfall and a side road near the second checkpoint. At the blind we had excellent views of Siberian Blue Robin, Rufous-bellied Niltava, Dark-sided Thrush, White-tailed Robin, Plumbeous water-redstart, and Slaty-backed and White-crowned Forktails.  On the grounds, two Himalayan Black Bulbuls and a Cinerous (Grey) Tit were seen (subspecies minor). On the side road we noted Long-tailed Minivets and two singing Hume’s (Manipur’s) Treecreepeers; a few saw a Clicking Shrike-babbler, and a female Asian Emerald Cuckoo. Nearby we had good views of a male Black-throated Sunbird at Mr. Deng’s. Near Chiang Mai we stopped at a site that had a few rare warblers prior to our visit, these included Thailand’s first Tickell’s Leaf-warbler. Unfortunately, it had moved on two days before. A few of us saw a male Siberian Rubythroat and a Black-browed Reed-warbler. We had a Baikal Grasshopper (Baikal Bush) Warbler calling in an isolated bush a few feet in front of us for ten minutes, and although we saw the leaves move, we were unable to see it. Such is often the case with species in the genus Locustella. We overnighted in Chiang Mai.

Our first stop the next morning was on the main road north out of Chiang Mai. At a random spot with telephone lines we stopped to admire Crested Treeswifts, perched on the wires and in flight. From here we continued to Mae Taeng and found a variety of birds including Lesser Whistling-ducks, Eurasian Coots (6), Grey-headed Swamphens, Little Ringed Plover, Green Sandpiper, Bluethroat (male), Citrine Wagtail, Red Avadavats, and Baya Weavers. Two Ruddy-breasted Crakes were also seen, one well, and nearby we had excellent studies of Wire-tailed Swallows along the canal. We then continued to Chiang Dao for lunch and afterwards to Fang where we spent the night.

The next morning we headed west and ascended Doi Ang Khang. Around the army camp we noted Himalayan Buzzard (3), Grey-capped Woodpecker, Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike, Short-billed Minivet, Maroon Oriole, Bronzed Drongo, Chestnut-vented Nuthatch, Striated Bulbul, Hill Prinia, Pallas’s Leaf-warbler, a rather rare winter visitor, White-browed Laughingthrush, Rufous-backed Sibia, and Common Rosefinch. Numerous Cook’s Swifts were overhead. We dined at the beautiful royal project and strolled through the flower gardens. A number of Black-breasted Thrushes were present behind the dining room along with a single Grey-sided Thrush, and a male Daurian Readstart was in the garden, perhaps the same one that was there last winter. Descending the mountain we headed back to Fang, but stopped at Fang Hot Stream in Doi Pha Hom Pok National Park. We had nice views of a pair of Eurasian Jays building a nest and a pair of Slaty-backed Forktails. The jays are of the distinctive subspecies, leucotis, often split as its own species, the White-faced Jay.

The next morning we returned to Doi Ang Khang. We stopped at the campground where we all managed to see the stunning Scarlet-faced Liolichla. A few of us had glimpsed one the day before here. Then we hiked down into the Mae Phur Valley, along a lovely forested jeep track. Species noted here and at the campground included Grey-capped and Streak-breasted Woodpeckers, Silver-eared Mesia, a male Vivid Niltava, a female Chestnut-bellied Rock-thrush, and two Chestnut-crowned Warblers. A few of us saw either a White’s or Scaly Thrush. These two species are exceedingly similar in appearance. A word about the niltava, In Uthai and Jay’s new Thailand guide (Lynx Edicions) they give this bird the English name of Large Vivid Niltava and the scientific name of Niltava oatesi. The earlier scientific name for Vivid Niltava was Niltava vivida. It is a polytypic species with two subspecies, vivida and oatesi, the latter found in mainland Asia, the former, endemic to Taiwan. Uthai and Jay have split these two as separate species and have used a confusing (at least to me) English name. I inquired with Thailand’s premier authority, Philip Round, and he indicated that these two have not yet been officially split in Thailand. I thank Rick for starting me down this rabbit hole of confusion and discovering our (my) own errors on the checklist. Add to the confusion, this species is the least “vivid” of the niltavas! Later that morning we visited a hilltop station on the Myanmar (Burma) border. We looked across a few hundred yards to the similar hilltop Burmese army post. We also had nice views of another male Daurian Redstart and appropriately noted a singing Burmese Shrike. After lunch we made a final stop at the Chinese cemetery where we finally located two Brown-breasted Bulbuls, then headed back down the mountain and north towards Tha Ton in the far northwest. Along the way we noted a beautiful adult male Pied Harrier and a Eurasian Kestrel. In a flooded rice field at Mae Ai we counted 25 Grey-headed Lapwings.

We arose well before dawn the next morning and headed up in the darkness up the ridge on the southwest side of Doi Lang. Our first stop was high on the ridge where a beautiful adult male Ultramarine Flycatcher has been wintering here for four years. We obtained excellent views of it and managed to spot a calling Collared Owlet. Other species noted along the ridge included Mountain Hawk-eagle, Lesser Yellownape, Large Cuckooshrike, Grey Treepie, Chestnut-bellied Rock-thrush (male), Rufescent Prinia, Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-babbler, and Slender-billed Oriole. Dozens of Cook’s Swifts were streaming overhead in the early morning. Reaching the moister north side of the ridge we noted a number of interesting birds visiting feeding stations. These included White-browed Scimitar-babbler, Siberian Rubythroat, Rufous-bellied Niltava (female), White-gorgeted, Slaty-blue, and Rufous-gorgeted Flycatchers, and a very cooperative calling Spot-breasted Parrotbill. Along the road there and at the army checkpoint we noted a Marten’s Warbler, Maroon Orioles and several distinctive (appearing and sounding) Giant Nuthatches. On the way back down we stopped at a location where Mrs. Hume’s Pheasants and Mountain Bamboo-partridges are sometimes seen. We missed those species, but while waiting noted White-browed Laughingthrushes, another adult male Ultramarine Flycatcher, and copulating Oriental Turtle-doves. This is an uncommon species in Thailand which has both migratory (orientalis) and resident (agricola) subspecies. The mating behavior indicates we encountered the latter, the Himalayan subspecies. Most notable were a pair of Black-throated Tits. This species is in the family Aegithalidae, the same family that includes Long-tailed Tit and the North American Bushtit.

The next morning was another predawn departure, this time in jeep trucks up the wetter and more rugged road along the northeast slope of Doi Lang. At first light we stopped at a bridge over a canyon and the birds were active at first light. We noted singing Orange-bellied Leafbirds and briefly saw a rufous colored woodpecker, probably a Bay Woodpecker which we later heard here. One of the highlights of the day was three Yellow-throated Martens, which were feeding and chasing around in a tall red flowering tree. They appeared to be drinking nectar from the red flowers. This striking species is the Old Word’s largest marten. Its tail is longer than the body. At another nearby stop, Mark got to see a Long-tailed Broadbill. Continuing up the road we stopped at a small agricultural village. Here we saw additional Oriental Turtle-doves along with a small party of Grey-breasted Prinias, and two Yellow-eyed Babblers. From here we ascended the high ridge to the army checkpoint and spent the next few hours birding here walking slowly along the forested road. Of four bluetails noted, one was an adult male, enabling an identification to species. It was the expected Himalayan Bluetail (Tarsiger rufilatus). We had superb views of Scarlet-faced Liocichlas, Large Niltavas, Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher, Yellow-cheeked Tit, Hume’s Treecreeprs, Buff-barred Warbler, and our main target, the distinctive Whiskered Yuhina. Some of the group got to see Black-eared and White-browed (Blyth’s) Shrike-babblers, and I believe it was Willie that saw a male Fire-breasted Flowerpecker. Eventually we all got to see Crested Finchbills and two more Yellow-throated Martens crossed the road. The stand-out ornithological highlight of the day was an elusive party of scimitar-babblers along the road. We initially just got glimpses but they then started calling low, just above the forest floor. One of our sharper folks spotted them perched. They were dueting with heads pointed skyward. They were Coral-billed Scimitar-babblers, and it is the first time we have encountered this secretive species in over 35 years of tours. The taxonomic situation here is complicated so follow closely. The scientific name is Pomatorhinus ferruginosus; nominate ferruginosus has priority, it being described by Blyth in 1845 before he described phayeri in 1847. He described the subspecies that occurs in northwestern and western Thailand and eastern Myanmar, albogularis, in 1855. Rasmussen and Anderton in their detailed Birds of South Asia (2005) covering India and adjacent countries, give a taxonomic note that nominate ferruginosus from the Himalayan foothills east from eastern Nepal, “may better be considered a separate species from other races, with its different head pattern and crown feather shape. Vocalizations seem to support this and no evidence of intergradation is known, but more recordings and further study needed.” Uthai and Jay, adopt this split so the scientific name becomes Pomatorhinus phayeri (nominate phayeri found northeast India and southwest Myanmar), but suggest that in addition albogularis and two other subspecies (he doesn’t say which ones; seven subspecies are generally recognized overall) form their own distinct group, perhaps another separate species. Handbook of the Birds of the World (volume 12) indicates that subspecies stanfordi, formosus, and phayrei to the west form their own group. In any event, we had a memorable encounter with this striking taxon, whatever its taxonomic disposition is. Moving on! We headed back down the mountain and stopped at the bridge, getting good scope views of two Himalayan Black Bulbuls. We also noted a constant north to south movement of Asian House Martins, flock after flock. We conservatively noted a thousand in the short time we were there. These were the only ones we noted on the trip.  

The next morning we headed south to Mae Ai at dawn to try for the Eastern Short-tailed Larks, which been wintering in a dirt field east of the town. A Lapland Bunting (Lapland Longspur), the first for Southeast Asia, had been wintering with them. As per our late afternoon visit a few days earlier we found the field devoid of birds. While contemplating where they might be a single shorebird dropped into the field. It was a Long-billed Plover, a rare wintering species in Thailand, and essentially only from the Mekong River to the northeast. It stayed for fifteen minutes or so before departing, but long enough for all to see well. This was another first for our Thailand tours. A female Bluethroat was also well seen along with Dusky Warblers, Yellow-bellied Prinias, and two Yellow-vented Bulbuls. Across the road in the flooded rice fields we sorted through the numerous wagtails finding a number of Citrine and a single Eastern Yellow Wagtail (subspecies macronyx). The White Wagtails were nearly all of the subspecies, but we found a single more northerly breeding ocularis amongst them. This latter subspecies is the one that breeds in very small numbers in western Alaska. While studying these birds, a Ruddy-breasted Crake appeared on the side of the road. As for the Eastern Short-tailed Larks and Lapland Longspur, we never saw them, although others reported them in subsequent days.

From Mae Ai we headed east towards Chiang Saen and the Mekong, stopping enroute to study a couple of Himalayan Buzzards and then a brief stop at the Nom Kham Nature Center. We had lunch along the Mekong in the tourist mecca of Chiang Saen near the Golden Triangle. We noted that the restaurants and the river were deserted (no boat traffic). It was here on the 17th of February when the reality of this new coronavirus, Covid 19, became more than just an unsettling bit of news from Wuhan, China. The Laos border was closed, and we saw no Chinese tourists. While having lunch we were able to look out on the flats of the Mekong and spotted a pair of Ruddy Shelducks, close enough that with a scope we could easily sex them, the males having a black neck band and a more rufous face (whitish on females). After lunch at another spot on the Mekong, we found a few Small Pratincoles. Then we headed south to south of Chiang Rai. Our goal was Nong Laung Lake, where amongst the wintering waterfowl, a male Baer’s Pochard had been present. This species is now endangered, perhaps critically endangered. A few decades ago several hundred wintered at the Bueng Boraphet non-hunting area in central Thailand, well away from our tour routes. Now just a few irregularly occur, and none (to my knowledge) were present this winter. The species breeds in northern China. We first checked the eastern end of the lake and noted hundreds of Lesser Whistling Ducks along with three Northern Pintail, and some ten winter plumaged Long-tailed Jacanas. Pasith located a Thai naturalist that led us over to the northwestern side of the lake where the birders had been frequenting. Immediately we found the striking male Red-crested Pochard, another rare species in Thailand, and Ferruginous Ducks. Willie spotted another bird which proved to be the male Baer’s Pochard. We watched it off and on for a few hours, getting decent scope views. This was our first encounter with this now very rare species on our Thailand trips. Other species noted included a female Common Pochard (another rarity in Thailand), a single Great Cormorant (sinensis subspecies), a female Gadwall (rare in Thailand), two Oriental Darters, and some 30 Eurasian Coots. A Eurasian Wryneck was briefly seen.

The next day, our last birding day, we stopped briefly at Nom Kham Nature Center, then headed to Nong Mae Lua, a large freshwater lake, some 20 kilometers south of Chiang Saen. This was our first visit here and it was full of birds, particularly shorebirds and waterfowl. Shorebirds included Kentish (one) and Little Ringed Plovers, Common Snipe, Wood Sandpiper, Common Greenshank, Spotted Redshank (150), Temminick’s Stint (8), and a single Long-toed Stint. We also heard, but did not see, a Common Ringed Plover, a rarity in Thailand, circling overhead. Ironically my only previous encounter with this species in Thailand along the Mekong more than a decade ago, was another heard only. Waterfowl included some 150 Indian Spot-billed Ducks, Northern Shoveler, “Eurasian” Green-winged Teal, Garganey (18), Eurasian Wigeon, and a single “Eastern” Greylag Goose (subspecies rubirostris with a pink, not orange bill like the western European anser subspecies). This stakeout was known to be present. There only a handful of previous Thai records. Other species noted were a single Greater Spotted Eagle, Purple and Grey Herons, Eastern Marsh Harrier, Common Kingfisher, Burmese and Long-tailed Shrikes, Red-rumped Swallow, Dusky Warbler, Citrine Wagtail, and our only Chestnut-capped Babblers of the trip. Some 64 Glossy Ibis were a real surprise. This was another first for our Thailand tours.  Late in the morning we drove on into Chiang Rai where we had a buffet lunch at a hotel, then drove back out to the airport where we checked in and awaited our 4:20 flight, arriving back in Bangkok at 5:30 p.m. We got together again a few hours later for our final buffet dinner at the Novotel.

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