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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Thailand: The South

Khao Yai and Kaeng Krachen National Parks and the Spoon-billed Sandpiper

2020 Narrative

In Brief: Our tour recorded some 315 species (only three heard only). These included a fine variety of gallinaceous birds (Siamese Fireback, Silver Pheasant and Kalij Pheasants, Gray Peacock-pheasant, and Bar-backed, Green-legged, and Ferruginous Partridges), and eleven species of woodpeckers including Great Slaty, Black-and-buff, Heart-spotted, and Eurasian Wryneck, and four species of hornbills. Other highlights included Spot-billed Pelican (6), Great (Eurasian) Bittern, Slaty-legged Crake, Eared and Blue Pittas, a displaying pair of Besras, a Buffy Fish-owl, several Manchurian (White-browed) Reed-warblers, the now Thai endemic Rufous Limestone-babbler, and a Forest Wagtail. The shorebird variety was outstanding with 46 species including Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Asian Dowitcher (46), and Nordmann’s Greenshank (183). We also saw Malaysian and White-faced Plovers and a North American stray, a Long-billed Dowitcher. For those that did both tours, the combined total was 463 species of which eleven were heard only.  

In Detail: Like the Northwest Thailand tour, our tour began with a quick meeting in the lobby of the Novotel, followed by a buffet dinner. The next morning, we departed in two vans for Rangsit, an urban enclave on the north side of Bangkok, near the old Don Muang international airport. We spent most of our time at the rice research center and rightly so as it was full of birds. Herons were numerous and included Javan Pond, Purple, Intermediate Egret, and Eastern Cattle Egret. The latter species is split by many now. It is larger and longer necked than the African Cattle Egret we know, and in alternate plumage gets a much deeper cinnamon plumage on the head and neck. We saw this plumage a bit later farther south of Pak Thale. Shorebirds were present too and included Spotted Redshank, Wood, Pin-tailed and two Greater Painted-snipe. White-breasted Waterhens were scurrying about, and Jon and Willie briefly spotted two Slaty-breasted Rails in flight. Land birds included Black-capped Kingfisher, Brown Shrike, Blue-tailed Bee-eaters, Sunda Pied (Malaysian) Fantails, Dusky Warbler, Zitting Cisticola, Yellow-vented Bulbul, and Eastern Yellow Wagtail (subspecies macronyx with no supercilium). Munias were abundant, the White-rumped outnumbering the Scaly-breasted, and Baya and Asian Golden Weavers were seen today, the Bayas constructing nests. Our estimate of Red Turtle-doves (Red Collared-dove) was some 250.

From here we visited Wachira Banchathat Park (Rot Fai Park; we also saw a sign that said Yellowstar Park), an urban park in Bangkok. Here Pipith had three owl species staked out. We managed to have fine views of the Spotted and Asian Barred Owlets, but the Collared Scops-owl was not at his usual roost spot, or at least we were unable to spot it. Other birds noted included our first ever Black-collared Starlings on this tour along with Asian Pied Starlings, and Taiga and Asian Brown Flycatchers. Our next stop was Wat Chalarm Pra Kiat Temple where we had excellent views of multiple Red-breasted Parakeets. We had lunch at Ayutthaya, the old capital city until it was sacked by the Burmese in 1767. Here we had lunch along Thailand’s grand Chao Phraya River. The pair of Pied Kingfishers cooperated nicely, our only ones of the trip. After lunch and just a short distance away we stopped at another temple where at least a hundred Lyle’s Flying Foxes were roosting in the trees. From here we drove east towards Pak Chong and Khao Yai, stopping at Wat Phra Phutthabat Noi, an old temple amidst the limestone karst formations. We were greeted by the usual horde of barking dogs, the dogs outnumbering the monks. Our goal was the Rufous Limestone-babbler, formerly treated as a subspecies with two others of the Limestone Wren-babbler (Turdinus crispifrons), but now generally treated as a separate endemic Thai species limited to a small region of north-central Thailand. It is treated as “Vulnerable” by Birdlife International. A pair were eventually located, and we obtained good views. We also noted Linneated Barbets and a pair of Eurasian Hoopoes. We headed on to the east arriving at Lulawalai Resort, our home for the next four nights and not far from the north entrance of Khao Yai National Park.  

We left before dawn the next morning, as we did for all our mornings at Khao Yai, and headed to the highest point in the park, the ridge and checkpoint at Khao Khieo. We saw a Red Junglefowl on the way up. At the checkpoint, we were greeted by a pair of Black-throated Laughingthrushes, a stunning Common Green Magpie, a Grey-backed Shrike, and two Olive-backed Pipits. We also had excellent views of several Mountain Imperial-pigeons and a couple of Barred Cuckoo-doves their long tails distinctive as they flew over. They are rarely seen perched. A little lower down, we hiked out to the viewpoint, and noted a Black Eagle, from my experience the best place to see this species in Thailand. Other birds noted included Moustached Barbet, Ashy Bulbuls, and a Hill Blue Flycatcher. We returned to the headquarters area for lunch. The birding there was good with Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters perched over the stream, and nearby we spent a good deal of time following a feeding flock. There were lots of highlights - an Orange-breasted Trogon, Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrikes, Rosy and Swinhoe’s Minivets, White-bellied Erpornis, Abbott’s Babbler, Buff-bellied (Cambodian) Flowerpecker, and Claudia’s and Sulphur-breasted Warblers. Also associating with the flock was a female Banded Kingfisher, and a Laced (briefly seen) and Black-and-buff Woodpecker, a species we rarely see on the tour. We also noted numerous Oriental Pied Hornbills (30), Green-eared Barbets, and a Siberian Blue Robin. That evening near dusk we had a Great Eared-nightjar fly over at us at Nom Phak Chee.

The next morning, we started our birding at the viewpoint. This is always a great place in the early morning, and we were not disappointed. Dozens of Hair-crested Drongos were present along with a huge flock of white-eyes, mostly Chestnut-flanked, but also Hume’s (Zosterops auriventer wetmorei).  We also noted Blue-winged and Golden-fronted Leafbirds, Greater Flameback, Common Hill and Golden-crested Mynas, and Great Hornbills. Grey-bellied and Black Giant Squirrels were also seen. Our next stop was not far away, a forest trail. We hiked to a blind and watched a male Wreathed Hornbill at a nest, the female presumably was walled up inside. Later, at the headquarters area, we hiked up another trail where Austen’s Brown Hornbills were nesting, and we obtained good scope views of one. After lunch, we headed south to the Haew Narok Waterfall trail. Our short stroll was productive, noting a couple of Dollarbirds, and a pair of adorable Heart-spotted Woodpeckers, a species we seldom see on our tours. Also noted were Crimson and Maroon-bellied (Van Hasselt’s) Sunbirds and Little Spiderhunter. Later in the afternoon, we visited the pond near the old lodging area. Here we awaited the arrival of needletail swifts. They come here to drink late in the day. When they arrived, we noted several Silver-backed Needletails along with the larger Brown Needletails (subspecies indicus with a white loral spot). From here we returned to the park headquarters and looked north along the stream where a Buffy Fish owl had appeared recently at dusk. We waited for a while and gave up heading back to our lodging, rather on van left. Part of the group lingered a little longer and scored when it was found by others on the other side of the bridge to the south. Fortunately, it lingered long enough for the lead van to return. We even saw it grab prey, a frog as I recall. Somewhere during the day, an Emperor Scorpion was seen too. We also glimpsed an Asian Elephant feeding near the road in thick cover. It is hard to believe that such a large animal could be nearly invisible.

For our final day at Khao Yai, we intended to get back up to Khao Khieo to look for Silver Pheasants. But, near the base of the Khao Khieo road we encountered a significant obstacle which caused an hour delay - a large and cranky bull Asian Elephant. It was going the same direction we were but at its own pace. A young woman park ranger was encouraging it to move off the road, periodically shouting at it, then turning around and shouting at the drivers and tourists that were too close behind. As far as I could tell she had a lit cigarette the entire time, so she managed to do at least three things. In short order, there was a conga line of ten or more vehicles. Periodically the elephant turned and charged the ranger’s vehicle which was in the lead. This caused a strategic retreat for all followed by the elephant swinging around again and continuing its journey at its own pace. Eventually, it reached a clearing and strolled off to the south which is where we decided to stop and bird. In the secondary forest, we had good studies of two Yellow-vented Flowerpeckers and listened to the wailing popping song of a Pileated Gibbon. Wreathed, Great, and Oriental Pied Hornbills were seen too. We had seen White-handed Gibbons on previous days. While birding here a pair of Accipiter hawks in display flight (slow rowing of wing flaps like Cooper’s display flight) appeared. I called them Shikras. They were seen well, and I was able to get a few photos. Shortly later we ran into a party of Thai birders doing a bird survey. They had seen the hawks and had called them Crested Goshawks. I looked at my photos and could tell that they weren’t Shikras, and matched the pattern of Crested Goshawk, so changed the identification, but I wondered as Crested Goshawk has a distinctly different display flight with very quick flaps with the white undertail coverts fluffed over the upper tail coverts. Later at lunch, I saw Jay Limparungpatthanakij, the excellent Thai birder and co-author with Uthai Treesucon, Birds of Thailand (Lynx Edicions). Jay said immediately it was a Besra, a scarce look-alike to Crested Goshawk, but smaller. Jay pointed out from my photos that there were five exposed outer primary feathers typical of Besra. Crested Goshawk has six exposed outer primary feathers. Birding is always a learning experience or should be, even if a humbling one. I had only identified one Besra previously in Thailand, a perched bird on Doi Ang Khang, northern Thailand. We eventually did get up Khao Khieo and saw two Silver Pheasants briefly though most missed them. Also, there was a black-billed (nominate caeruleus subspecies) Blue Whistling-thrush, out-of-range according to the range map. We had lunch at the headquarters and finally got decent views of the numerous, but evasive Grey-eyed Bulbuls giving their cat-like calls. Later after lunch, we drove to Sakaerat Biosphere Reserve where an adult Shikra greeted us. We walked a kilometer up the road where Siamese Firebacks and Red Junglefowl were fairly numerous and very cooperative. Late in the afternoon, on the drive back to the entrance, we noted Red-breasted Parakeets and two Red-billed Blue Magpies.

The next day was a driving day. We drove towards Bangkok, stopping at a Shell fuel/restroom station. Here we saw two species we saw nowhere else, a Chestnut-tailed Starling and three Small Minivets. On the west side of Bangkok, we made a stop at Khok Kham, a shorebird mecca, and a place where a couple of Spoon-billed Sandpipers were known to be wintering. Despite expert assistance from Mr. Tee, the Spoon-billed Sandpipers were evasive, and we did not see them. We did have good views of Broad-billed Sandpipers. We continued to a blind near Kaeng Krachan. On the hike to the blind, a few of us saw a sub-adult White bellied Sea-eagle. At the blind, we noted both Black-naped Woodpecker and Greater Yellownape, along with Siberian Blue Robins, a male Hainan Blue Flycatcher, and two Green-legged (Sclay-breasted) Partridges. We also heard Large Scimitar-babbler, and an Eared Pitta. That evening at Samarn Bird Camp, our home for four nights, we had nice views of a perched Large-tailed Nightjar.

Our time at Kaeng Krachan National Park was confined to the lower altitudes. The summer before last during the monsoon, the rains washed out the road to the high ridge, well to the west. Political infighting as to what sort of road to build had brought the reconstruction project to a halt. This meant that some species, including the Ratchet-tailed Treepie, were unavailable. So, like last year, we spent more time in the blinds. But the blinds had plenty to offer! On our first morning, we started not too far from the park entrance at a place where there were cooperative Black-thighed Falconets. We saw those along with Black-naped Woodpeckers, both Common and Greater Flamebacks, and Golden Crested and Common Hill Mynas. Our only Thick-billed Warbler was pointed out to us by an English birding group. A little farther up the road, we were lucky enough to encounter a party of Great Slaty Woodpeckers. Great Hornbills were also present as was a Thick-billed (Modest) Flowerpecker. Close to headquarters we found both Black-and-yellow and Silver-breasted Broadbills, Great Ioras, Eastern Crowned Warbler, and Sultan Tits. Two Baker’s Bulbuls were also seen as were more Ochraceous Bulbuls. This recently split species (from Grey-eyed Bulbul) is sometimes treated as a subspecies of Olive Bulbul. Later that afternoon we returned to another blind where we had Emerald Doves, Common Green Magpie, numerous Oriental Brown-cheeked Fulvettas, White-browed Scimitar-babbler, Siberian Blue Robin (3), a male Orange-headed Thrush, and after we settled down, a female Blue Pitta. Mammals seen during the day included Dusky Langur, Pallas’s Squirrel, Indochinese Ground Squirrel, and Burmese Striped Squirrel.

The next morning, we returned to Kaeng Krachan, entering the park in darkness and heading directly to the headquarters area. Here we managed to get two White-fronted Scops-owls to call, a rapid pulsating hooting, but unfortunately, we were unable to locate the closer bird in the dense vegetation. As it got light, we birded the campground area noting a Forest Wagtail, the first one we’ve seen on a tour in decades.

We then hiked a few kilometers up the dirt road along the heavily forested canyon to the second stream crossing. We had a nice selection of birds. These included a male Raffle’s Makoha, Black-and-yellow and Banded Broadbills, Blue-Bearded Bee-eaters, Buff-rumped Woodpecker, Large Wood Shrike (pair), Scarlet Minivet, Rufous-fronted Babbler, two Oriental Paradise-flycatchers and Ruby-cheeked and Crimson Sunbirds. After lunch and a short rest, we visited the Nueng Hide where we stayed until near dusk. Here we had excellent comparisons of Lesser and Greater Necklaced Laughinthruhes, and White-crested Laughingthrushes visited too. A male Chinese Blue Flycatcher, a winter visitant from China, was recorded today. Lesser Oriental Chevrotains, formerly known as the Lesser Mouse Deer, made frequent visits. Ornithologically, the most notable visitors were the variety of gallinaceous birds. Red Junglefowl (including a female with chicks), along with three species of partridges (Bar-backed, Scaly-breasted, and two lovely Ferruginous) visited along with three Grey Peacock-pheasants all visited. All were present as dusk approached, when Willie suddenly exclaimed, good God here comes a huge snake, it must be a King Cobra. For the record, it should be noted that there were a few expletives in advance of his declaration.

Pipith pronounced it not to be a cobra, but a rat snake. We watched transfixed as it came to the small pond, then approached closer to Pipith’s hide. It was well over 10 feet long. Pipith then said, I think it is a rat snake, but it might be a cobra. When it attempted to enter the hide, there was a sudden human exodus from Pipith’s hide. All the birds scattered with the commotion. Our birding day was over. Photos and identification by others revealed it to be a Keeled Rat Snake (Ptyas carinata), a species that can reach lengths over 4 meters.

We returned the following morning to the headquarters area at Khaeng Krachan. We saw the Forest Wagtail again and the pair of Large Woodshrikes. We tallied four Golden-crested Mynas and five Ruby-cheeked Sunbirds. New birds included a pair of Grey-rumped Treeswifts and a briefly seen Streak-breasted Woodpecker. A Stump-tailed Macaque was well-seen too as was an Oriental Whipsnake. Perhaps the most unusual sighting was a Gray Nightjar, flushed by Mark, which then landed in front of the main group on the road in broad daylight. It remained long enough for us to approach closely and obtain good photos. This was a winter visitor. It breeds north to northeast Asia. Later in the day, we visited Prasit Hide again where we listened to an Eared Pitta call. This time though the male came in for good views. A second bird, a female, was seen by some, thus a pair was present. I had only once previously seen this species (in Khao Yai), and those views were fleeting.

On our final morning in the Kaeng Krachan area, we visited Lung –Sin Bird Hide shortly after dawn. We noted Bar-backed and Scaly-breasted Partridges, and eventually, a male Kalij Pheasant paid a visit. Two Siberian Blue Robins, including an adult male, were present and we again heard but did not see, Large Scimitar-babblers. And then, another very big snake appeared, this one Pipith, without hesitation, proclaimed it a King Cobra. It approached the pool and the hides, gave us a good stare, and then rapidly proceeded laterally back up the wooded slope. From here we visited Bang Maka Bird Camp, a place we sometimes stay. We were led to a hide where an adult Slaty-legged Crake was making visits. It performed for us too and remained for lengthy views and photos. It is only the 2nd time I have seen this poorly known species. A male Siberian Rubythroat visited too. In the trees over the kitchen, we saw our only Black-hooded Oriole of the trip. We were also kindly led to a roosting Southern (Brown) Boobook. After lunch there we headed north to Kaeng Krachan Country Club where we noted two Rufous Treepies, a single Indochinese Bushlark, and a small party of Grey-breasted Prinias. From here we drove to the Thai Gulf coast and took a boat trip out to the end of the spit at Laem Phak Bia. Mr. Deng was our captain and our guide, and he knew where to find the key species. Before landing, we noted a single, but rather distant Chinese Egret, and had decent views of a Gray-tailed Tattler, a scarce wintering species in Thailand. On the spit, we noted some four Malaysian Plovers and several Pacific Reef Egrets. Amongst hundreds of terns were several White-winged and a dozen Greater Crested Terns. Eventually, Deng located a single male White-faced Plover. This distinctive bird is often treated as a subspecies of Kentish Plover. It is genetically close to that species, but it certainly looks very different from Kentish and seems structurally different. It was described to science by Robert Swinhoe in 1870, and then forgotten for over a century. It breeds in coastal eastern China. We stopped briefly at the Royal Project and noted a Golden Tree Snake.

We spent the entire next day looking at shorebirds at Pak Thale and nearby Laem Phak Bia. Our main goal was the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper. A few (perhaps three) were present this winter, including a green leg –flagged bird. We searched amongst hundreds of waders including many Broad-billed, Terek, and Long-toed and Red-necked Stints. Amongst the hundreds of Eurasian Curlews, we found three rarer Far Eastern (Eastern) Curlews. Some 25 Painted Storks and 400 Indian Cormorants were tallied. Eventually, we were signaled by another group led by a Swedish man, Peter Ericsson. They had found a Spoon-billed Sandpiper. They stayed with it and helped us get on it. It was roosting (and sleeping with head tucked in!) on a dike with other shorebirds. It took much time, but eventually, all saw it well, including the fully exposed bill! One of my most satisfying moments as a bird guide was when Monique finally got on the right bird in the scope and saw the bill. This is a bird that no one should miss. Later in the afternoon at the Royal Project, we had several interesting species including Ruddy-breasted Crake, Greater Painted-snipe (good views of a pair), Pin-tailed and Common Snipes, and Temminck’s Stint. In the mangroves, we saw our first Golden-bellied Gerygones.

The following day we spent the morning at Laem Phak Bia, our main goal being to see another rare shorebird, Nordmann’s (Spotted) Greenshank. We found lots of them, and in fact, counted 183 roosting in scattered flocks from one spot. If estimates of the entire world population are accurate this accounts to close to 5% of the total population. It breeds in northern Sakhalin and the adjacent coastal mainland of the Russian Far East. Some 750 Great Knots were counted, and at one point we had close comparisons of Red and Great Knots together. Eighteen Red-necked Phalarope s were counted, including an alternate plumaged female and our count of Pied Avocets was 133. Most of us continued to where the van had moved to await us. We noted then that Neil had lingered and was on a wander. He eventually chose to join our group again which we all celebrated, probably even Neil. Across the highway, we checked some more ponds for Asian Dowitchers. We didn’t find them but did locate a single Little Stint, and a sleeping shorebird which upon awakening we confirmed as a Long-billed Dowitcher from North America. We took photos of this Thai rarity and we called Philip Round to alert him of our sighting. He laughed and said he had forgotten to tell me about it. It had been found earlier, I believe by Nick Upton, on 22 February. Also, in the morning, we had nice perched views of Collared Kingfishers on the wires. After lunch, we headed north towards the lake at Wat Khao Pak Hrao. On the way, we noted a single Eurasian Kestrel. It was hot when we arrived at the lake but noted lots of birds. These included some 100 Eurasian Wigeon, by far the largest number of this species we have ever encountered in Thailand. Even more, Garganey (250+) were present, along with fewer Northern Shoveler, and a single male Northern Pintail. Seven Black-headed Ibis and many Painted Storks were present. From a great distance, we noted many godwits feeding in the northeast corner of the lake. Given our good luck in previous years with dowitchers here, this resulted in a lengthy and hot hike, but we were rewarded with 46 Asian Dowitchers. From here we drove north to Nong Pla Lai, an area of extensive rice fields and known for wintering raptors. We did see a few, notably Black Kites and a single Greater Spotted Eagle. But we encountered other species too. These included Grey-headed Lapwing, Bronze-winged Jacana, Oriental Pratincole (10), Oriental Reed Warbler, Plain-backed Sparrow, and 30 Eastern Yellow-Wagtails (all of the subspecies tschtschensis with a white supercilium). Amongst the weavers (Asian Golden and Baya) we saw several Streaked Weavers, including one building a nest.

For our final day, we visited a spot that Philip Round alerted me to, a small wetland (Petchaburi Wetlands) only ten minutes from Fisherman’s Retreat Resort. We were hoping to see Manchurian (White-browed) Reed Warbler, a rather rare warbler that winters mostly in small wetland areas on the plains of Cambodia. I had only once seen this species previously, one south of here with Phil Round near Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park in 1985. Phil had seen some here previously a week or so previously, and at first light, we saw a few well too. Other birds noted included Black-winged (Black-shouldered) Kite, Streaked Weaver, Red Avadavat, Bluethroat, a singing and displaying Oriental Skylark, and both Yellow and Great (Eurasian) Bitterns. We had never seen a Eurasian Bittern on a Thailand tour before. It arrived in the early morning and dropped into the marsh in front of us. It had performed the same routine for Phil Round previously. From here we headed north and back to Nong Plai Lai area (Thong Chai paddies) where we found most of the birds we had seen the previous afternoon. We added another Yellow Bittern and an adult male Eastern Marsh Harrier. A Lesser Coucal was briefly seen. We made two more stops after lunch in the Bangkok area, one at Phutthamonthen Park which wasn’t very productive, and then we returned to Wachira Benchathat (Rot Fai) Park where we learned that the Eastern Jungle Crows had attacked and killed the Chestnut-winged Cuckoo a few days previously. We did finally see the Collared Scops-owl, the one we had missed on our first day. We returned to the Novotel in the early evening where we had a final, memorable buffet dinner.

The next day we headed in separate directions. A few lingered in Thailand a little longer. I found Narita airport near Tokyo largely empty, and the normally jammed LAX was deserted too. Folks at home wondered if we had been OK in Thailand with the Covid-19 not far away. Ironically, we headed home into a hotter zone for this soon to be declared world pandemic. I suspect most of us have been largely confined to at, or near, home as this calamity has spread over us. Our time in Thailand was the last calm before the storm, and for me will always hold a place in my heart because of it. On some level, I think we all realized this during the trip. Willie was tracking the numbers and the spread. We knew what was ahead, yet carved out a special time that we will hopefully fondly remember. I will be assembling numerous photos that I took during the trip and will work with Greg Greene, our Wings Tour Manager, to get them to you in some manner and format. Please do contact me if anything on the checklist is unclear. I added several subspecies, mostly reflecting different subspecies of the same species between Khao Yai and Kaeng Krachan. I’ve adopted, for the most part, Uthai and Jay’s English names, but if they differ from the 2020 Wings list, I also tried to use the alternate English name in parenthesis. For clarity, always check the scientific names. Again, I’m here to help. I’m so pleased that Monique is listening (in French) to Sylvie Simmon’s biography (2012, HarperCollins Publishers) on Leonard Cohen written a few days before his death in 2016. I read her book the better part of a decade ago but had forgotten much of it, so I have chosen to read it again. The future ahead is very uncertain. Needless to say, all bird tours are canceled, at least until late summer, perhaps (probably) for the rest of the year, or longer. We need a vaccine to feel safe again. How does one maintain social distancing on a bird tour where you can’t share scopes?! So, I bird locally, mostly my neighborhood, and I track the spring migrants. The day before yesterday I saw a dozen male Lazuli Buntings two doors down. Reading about Leonard brings me peace in the evening. I hope everyone can find their own peace in these turbulent times. Please stay safe and please keep in touch. 

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