Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Thailand 2018: Part 2

Day one of the main tour. Topped off with breakfast and caffeine, our first order of business was a stop at the a vestige of mangrove forest to walk a raised concrete dike through the Mahachai Mangroves in search of Golden-bellied Gerygone, which, while very vocal, didn't make an appearance for most of the group. However, a very cooperative Brahminy Kite was a crowd pleaser.

Brahminy Kite, dodging rain, and harvesting salt
Continuing southwest, rain was at times heavy making roadside stops overlooking wetlands and salt pans difficult. But by the time we reached a small house tucked into the back end of a lagoon, the rain had let up. The property belonged to a well known ferryman of the Laem Phak Bia spit, Mr. Daeng. We climbed into low-riding long-tailed boats and chug-chugged our way out to the spit passing through wide swaths of marsh. Fortunately, it was still low tide so by the time we reached the spit there were a good number of birds. It was also quite windy which helped keep birds hunkered down.
A Chinese Egret, one of our target birds, was spotted by Mr. Deang. We also ticked White-faced Plover, a sought after subspecies of Kentish Plover.

riding with Mr. Deang and birding the spit
With a few hours of daylight remaining, we finally arrived at a highly anticipated stop, the Pak Thale wetlands to try for THE most anticipated bird of the tour: Spoon-billed Sandpiper. Calidris pygmaea is one of the most threatened birds on the planet. It breeds on the Chukotsk and Kamchatka peninsulas in the Russian Far East, migrates through Russia, Japan, North Korea, South Korea and the Jiangsu coast of China to winter in southern China, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand, about 5,000 miles from its breeding grounds. Studies from its known breeding grounds have indicated a severe population decline in the early to late 2000s. Conservationists have set an ambitious but achievable aim to not only halt the decline by 2025, but increase the population by 50% over that same period.

hoping to get lucky right away didn't pan out
We were gob-smacked by the number of shorebirds. Thousands and thousands. Recent rains didn’t help our cause making traversing the narrow dikes between impoundments slippery and treacherous. In 2004 up to 16 individuals had been reported wintering at Pak Thale. Latest sightings suggested that number had dropped to a few individuals. The phrase “looking for a needle in a haystack” came quickly to mind.

mud galore with Larry and Carol's sporting the new look 
Unfortunately we didn’t find any "needles". But we did manage to add pounds of mud to our hiking boots. Rubber boots would have been a blessing but we didn’t bring any. Even Chacos (easily cleaned) would have been doable. By the time we arrived at our overnight, the beachfront i Tara Resort & Spa, we spent a lot of time hosing off footwear before traipsing into the hotel (much to the relief of onlooking staff).
Undeterred, early the next morning we revisited Pak Thale. It simply was not an option to leave the area without a Spoon-billed Sandpiper. A few of the group had devised a (so they thought) fool-proof way to protect their footwear. The placed plastic garbage bags gleaned from the hotel over their shoes, held up by twine. The design looked far better on paper than in practice. The weight of mud sticking plastic was too much to overcome. But it did make for some comical moments (at least to those not wearing the plastic bags). There many instances when birding exotic places to keep one's sense of humor.

earlier photo by Tropical Birding guide Lisle Gwinn taken on the bird's breeding ground
happy birders after finding the spoon-billed!
After scouring a number of impoundments, we met a pair of birders with a guide coming off a distant dike where they had just seen a Spoon-billed Sandpiper! That’s all the encouragement we needed and off we trudged. We eventually keyed in on not one but two target birds, albeit through very distance scope views. Success! Suddenly muddy feet were forgotten. Plus by now we also tallied loads of sandpiper and allied species. Of 23 sandpiper species, 15 were life sightings including Nordmann’s Greenshank and Broad-billed Sandpiper. To this we added 7 species of plovers/lapwings, 12 species of wading bird (herons/egrets), and a bonus sighting of Spot-billed Pelican. We would experience other encounters with more shorebirds during our trip but nothing at all the likes of what we witnessed at Pak Thale.
Venturing further into the northern Thai peninsula we arrived at Baan Maka Nature Lodge. After quickly dropping our luggage, we split into two groups, each going to an observation blind. Before darkness forced us back to the lodge, we added such striking birds as Oriental Pied-Hornbill, Greater Flameback Woodpecker, Siberian Blue Robin, Black-naped Monarch, and a couple of bee-eaters: Green and Chestnut-headed.

great views but a step stool would have been handy!
The next morning we temporarily forsake our vans in favor of a couple of pickup trucks driven by local guides. Some rode inside the truck cabs while others sat perched on padded bench seats in the truck beds. Outside seating was cool (figuratively and literally), affording panoramic views of our surroundings. Green-eared and Blue-eared Barbets (have to say the barbet family is one of our favorites), Crested Serpent Eagle, Gray-rumped Treeswift, Rusty-cheeked Hornbill, and Blue-throated Flycatcher. On the mammal checklist we added White-handed Gibbon. They were as fascinated with us as we were with them.

Ashy Drongo (top); Blue-throated Flycatcher
During our mid-day packed lunch break we were informed that the road going to the top of the park (earlier we were told it was closed due to heavy rain) was now open. The whole purpose of using 4WD trucks was to ensure getting to the top so we were glad we were not to be denied. Added benefit was that both drivers were familiar with local bird species.

sunrise Kaeng Krachen and Kalij Pheasant
At the top of the park we scored Eye-browed and Orange-headed Thrushes, three bulbul species: Mountain, Ashy and Olive, and White-browed Scimitar-Babblers. On our way back down we sighted what are normally very shy, as many as six Kalij Pheasants, bold as brass along the road. That evening our meal at a local restaurant included two birthday celebrations: José P. and Carol D.

dinner out and birthday celebrations
A bit more leisurely start to the next morning, we first birded the grounds of Baan Maka before turning northward heading away from the peninsula. We wouldn’t be back to the peninsula again until the tour extension, and even then, much further south. Around the lodge we found Lesser-necklaced laughing-Thrush and flocks of Chestnut-tailed Starlings. A few roadside stops on the way to Khao Yai National Park added Plain-backed Sparrow and Vinous-breasted Starling. The thing about starlings in other parts of the world - they are quite remarkably more colorfully plumed compared to our European Starling invasive species in the U.S.
Passing through the Nong Pla Lai Paddies, good for wintering bird species, we found Asian Openbills, Whiskered Terns, and Gray-headed Lapwings. There was no escaping the traffic of Bangkok on our way to Khao Yai National Park, arriving in the evening at a spot outside the park to find Lineated Barbet and our first sighting of Red-breasted Parakeets. Our overnight was at the sparsely appointed Judis Khao Yai J2 Hotel. The hotel didn’t serve meals but we were within easy walking distance of local restaurants and an open-air market where we purchased food for the next day’s box breakfast/lunch.
By now we had learned that the best stops for bathroom breaks were 7-Eleven stores. Clean restrooms, easy in and out for fuel, opportunities for snacks, and an almost always adjacent Cafe Amazon (reminded us of a Starbucks but without the high prices). At times a local street vender or two might be set up near the parking lot for those in the group with an adventurous spirit.

group pic at Khao Yai entrance
Emboldened with caffeine and an small assortment of fresh fruit laid out by very obliging hotel staff, we arrived at Khao Yai National Park at first light. Established in 1962, it’s the third largest national park in Thailand. Habitat includes higher elevation fauna of evergreen forests and grasslands.
Our early arrival was rewarded with a Wreathed Hornbill soaring majestically through the valley below. Wow - and we thought the hornbills in South Africa were impressive! Scarlet Minivets, Asian Fairy Bluebirds and a couple more hornbill species: Oriental Pied and Great were found in surrounding trees.

we knew they were close
Foregoing the road for a bit, we hiked a narrow trail into a forested area where we encountered fresh steaming elephant dung. A mammal we were very interested in seeing was the Asian Elephant to complete our list of world elephant species having seen African Elephants in South Africa. Eventually we caught glimpses of a small herd heading away from us through a deep ravine. A much less stressful encounter for all concerned. More feathered wildlife along the trail included Sultan Tits and a Moustached Barbet. 
Pale-blue Flycatcher
Word had just recently gone out that a usually secretive (i.e. good luck ever finding one) Coral-billed Cuckoo had been making regular appearances along a trail in one of the park’s campgrounds. The bird was being regularly coaxed into view by the promise of meal worms put out by photographers. If we had any chance at all to glimpse this species, we would have to wait our turn to setup a blind, sprinkle mealworms, and be very patient. Of course this required Laurie to buy and keep on hand throughout the main tour, a jar of live mealworms. Fortunately no one ever confused the jar with the usual bounty of snacks we kept on hand.
Thai photographers can be overly protective of "their" photography patches. But photography etiquette had to be observed. After several failed attempts over the course of the day to find the observation point devoid of photographers, we gave up, vowing to try again the next day.

plenty of food and Carol (not to scale) with elephants
Following a stop at the park’s visitor center cafeteria where we attempted to sample every dish of Thai food and Thai iced coffee laid available (and failing in our attempt), we headed back to the upper, cooler parts of the park to avoid midday heat. Verditer Flycatcher, Warblers: Two-barred, Yellow-browed and Sulphur-breasted. At the top, another opportunity for iced coffee and of course more bird species. Hainan Blue Flycather (initially observed from the men’s room window), Black-throated Sunbird and Radde’s Warbler. A small boardwalk led to a stunning valley overlook where we encountered a Red-headed Trogon before heading back down and encountering an annoyed Collared Owlet being harassed by smaller birds.

Carol and Larry taking a breather and enjoy the view
Late afternoon we parked at a pond where our guides told us to “wait for it”. “It” turned out to be a small flock of Brown-backed Needletails, appearing for their late afternoon ritual drink and bath. Among some of the fastest flying birds in the world, they raced across the top of the water, effortlessly skimming their bill for water and splashing briefly to bathe.
Leaving the swift display behind we moved on to a clearing for some last minute before-the-sun-set birding. We were serenaded by a very insistent distant Brown Boobook. Overnight again at the Judis Khao Yai J2 Hotel.
Our second day at Khao Yai NP was nothing short of spectacular. In fact probably one of the best days on the tour. Passing a small lake the lead van suddenly swerved off the road and before it had even rolled to a complete stopped, Laurie was racing toward the water’s edge shouting something about, “wild dog, wild dog!”. We assumed he wasn’t referring to a lost domestic pet. Regardless, a good rule of thumb? When the guide gets this excited, it’s time to pay very strict attention.

Lounging on the far side of the lake was a Dhole. An extremely rare and secretive wild dog. Listed as critically endangered, current world populations, estimated at fewer than 2,500 adults, are decreasing. Dholes have already been extirpated from most areas in Thailand, already absent from the peninsula and eastern parts of the country. They are still found in fragmented populations in several large protected area complexes like national parks. Ultimately we observed three Dholes; what appeared to be two adults and an older pup. Both Laurie and Phil had never before seen any in the wild. Clearly, we had not either. Totally unexpected. But then on this tour, we came to appreciate the phrase, “Always expect the unexpected”.

Asian elephant
No sooner were we back on the road when we came upon a bull Asian Elephant. A much better view than the quick glimpse we had the previous day, this bull was close to the road and in no hurry to leave. Of interest were large wet spots emanating from the animal’s temples. Hormonal discharge indicating the animal was going through a spike of testosterone (called a “musth”). These spikes are accompanied with spikes of aggression so this guy was spoiling for a fight. We took our pictures and moved on not wanting to further disturb him.

constructing makeshift blind then standing patiently 
Our first attempt checking on the cuckoo viewing site availability resulted in an enthusiastic thumbs up from Laurie. We quickly (but quietly) hustle down the trail to set up a makeshift blind. Laurie had somehow managed to get hold of some material from the hotel (it looked suspiciously like tablecloths). With material stretched out along a length of twine strung between two trees, we dutifully took our standing positions and began our vigil, fingers crossed. Parked in front of our blind was a 'proper blind' occupied by a local photographer who didn't mind our presence. No way would we all fit in his blind!

our view of the trail and the bird itself
It didn’t help that a couple of local primates had learned there were meal worms to be had. While fun to watch, we needed them to leave which they eventually did on their own. First to appear was a White-rumped Shama. Then a Siberian Blue Robin followed by a stunning Orange-headed Thrush. Finally, around fifteen minutes later, a dark form quickly crossed the path and disappeared. Wait? Was that It? That was all we’d see?A few very anxious minutes later, our prize stepped into plain view not less than twenty feet away! This large enigmatic bird is one everyone comes to Thailand hoping to see but most leave without seeing one. Lucky us! 
More birding around the campgrounds and picnic areas followed by roadside birding along the road to the summit. Our luck seemed to hold when a Silver Pheasant was spotted strolling along the roadside. Given the time of day and realizing we’d need a lunch break before venturing all the way to the top, we retraced our route back down to the park restaurant. The lure of another go at the many samplings of Thai cuisine was strong. Honestly? The slightest hint at eating was ALWAYS met with enthusiasm. However, nature has a way of altering plans. As we rounded a bend in the road, we met a throng of cars blocking our path. Several people were out of their vehicles, standing further up the road peering around a sharp bend. Unable to proceed, we too parked, curious to see what was up.

the loser in a megafauna tussle
Onlookers gathered at the far bend suddenly turned and began running back toward their vehicles. This is when in the movies Godzilla makes an appearance, right? Remember the bull elephant high on testosterone? That’s what came lumbering quickly around the corner, apparently having met another bull elephant as he was now missing one of his tusks, blood mixed with hormonal discharge.
Over the next hour the injured bull wandered in and out of the nearby forest and back and forth parallel to the road. Park rangers had brought in a couple of large water tank trucks, presumably to be used to block the elephant from coming too close to parked vehicles. At one point it appeared the bull, now walking through a grassy knoll, wanted to cross the road, perhaps to get to a lake on the opposite side? Eventually, he wandered far enough away that the road was again opened to traffic.
On our way around the far corner, signs of an epic battle came into view. It looked like two Sherman tanks had battled in the forest. Large branches, small trees and road signs were demolished. The road was covered in blood.

Carol making a new friend - Sambar Deer
Arriving far later than anticipated at the restaurant, we attempted to complete our sampling of what we had missed the day before but once again failing in our quest. The human body can take only so much food in one sitting. Casually seated at tables scattered along a stream bordering the restaurant, we caught sight of more birds seen earlier in the trip. We were also entertained by Pig-tailed Macaques hoping to score snacks as they meticulously searched parked vehicle, looking for any weaknesses. We recalled our days in Africa and baboons and why one never leaves a vehicle door unlocked or a window open. Even cracked open a wee bit.

Pig-tailed Macaque - top to bottom youngster, female, male
As we assembled to leave, we discovered that one of the vans had in fact been left with a window left ajar. Ajar just enough for an enterprising macaque's fingers to lever it open. Rummaged bags, scattered contents and pilfered belongings (sun screen seemed to be popular), the lucky macaque had found and eaten all the bananas. Quite a mess (our driver was not amused). Lesson learned? Hope so.
Unsure as to whether the bull elephant was again blocking the road to the summit, we opted to walk a forested trail for anything new. Not terribly productive until a Blue Pitta started calling. By the sound of it’s two-call note it was quite close. Frustratingly close. But as with most pitta encounters, hearing is easy. Seeing is usually impossible. Suddenly it was not just one but three pittas calling. Our hopes at a sighting soared. Alas, aside from a few fleeting glimpses by only a few in the group, we struck out. Pitta 1, group 0.
We finished the day staking out a small vista near the park entrance. Here we added Scarlet and Brown-rumped Minivets, A White-rumped Munia and a very cooperative Asian Emerald Cuckoo. With light fading quickly, we came across a small feeding flock of rainbow-colored Pin-tailed Parrotfinches in a stand of flowering bamboo. Infrequent and unpredictable species; expect the unexpected. Another overnight at the Judis Khao Yai J2 Hotel.

impressive staircase and cliffs
Owing to an expected long driving/birding day, began well before first light. Just after sunrise we made a quick stop at a small the secluded nearby Phra Puttabhat Noi Temple, one of those “sure thing” opportunities for Limestone Wren-Babbler. Nothing is ever absolute when it comes to guaranteeing a bird but in this instance, it was a sure thing. Climbing an impressively adorned staircase set along a limestone cliff, we found a handful of boisterous wren-babblers foraging between rocks and boulders. Quite a handsome looking bird.

cruising Bueng Boraphet
After our long drive to Bueng Boraphet, Thailand’s largest freshwater lake, what better way to explore the area than on a couple of flat-bottom boats weaving through masses of floating lotus and other aquatic vegetation! Thousands of wintering birds included Pheasant-tailed and Bronze-winged Jacanas, Cotton Pygmy Goose, Ferruginous Duck, Garganey, Lesser Whistling-Duck, and a very nice prize not found on every tour - Baer’s Pochard. Just as we were docking, with the sun about to dip below the horizon, a Cinnamon Bittern flushed, rounding off a very impressive tally for a day considering much of it was spent in the vans.

hard to get the scale of this massive dragon atop an adjacent building
Overnight found us in a very urban setting: the Bonito Chinos Hotel in downtown Nakhon Sawan. After a leisurely rooftop evening meal replete with a karaoke serenade from the bar (oddly, not enjoyed by everyone), some of the group wandered around nearby streets to sample city street life which was gearing up, as was all of Thailand, for the coming Chinese New Year.

Siam croc and Common Kingfisher
Another early start (see the pattern forming?) began with a few stops at access points along the edges of Bueng Boraphet. First a small crocodile farm which is actually a Fisheries Research Station.
At the research station a fenced impoundment was filled with Siam Crocodiles and a number of crocodile wary waterbirds (‘hope springs eternal’ is the crocodile motto). Kingfishers here and in other parts of the world far outshine our kingfishers in the United States. Common (an unfair moniker as it looks anything but ‘common’) Kingfisher, White-throated Kingfisher, and Pied Kingfisher. And if these weren’t enough, we added the aptly named, Stork-billed Kingfisher. While enjoying another look at a Yellow Bittern, a Black Bittern popped up as if to say “me too!”. Pallas Grasshopper-Warbler was briefly glimpsed by a few but mainly just heard by the majority.

White-eyed River Martin monument
A very brief stop at Waterbird Park ("Nok Nam Park”) where there is an interesting monument to the one and only reported record of a White-eyed River Martin (Pseudochelidon sirintarae). The curious story on the river martin? A single specimen was discovered as recently as 1969 and is only known from this one specimen and anecdotal evidence – no modern ornithologists have seen the species in the wild, and its breeding grounds are unknown. It may, in fact, and probably is, extinct. There was one possible but unconfirmed sighting reported in 2004. We scanned the skies but figured the chances of finding a Blue Pitta were far better. And we know how that turned out.

Inthanon Highland Resort deck and restaurant
Puncuated with potty stops, lunch and a few roadside bird sightings, we arrived just before dark at the Inthanon Highland Resort. A brief time to stretch our legs, get checked into our rooms located in several buildings scattered around the expansive property and finally, adult beverages with probably one of the best meals of the trip - Hung Lay curry and a fried pork dish that was heavenly. This stop offered our first opportunity to get some laundry done as we would be here for a few nights. Our bird tally thus far? We had racked up an impressive 241 species of birds (204 being life birds). Next entry: The ups and downs of exploring Doi Inthanon National Park.

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