Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Thailand 2018: Part 4

Day sixteen, Feb 17. Our flight from Chiang Rai to Bangkok went off without a hitch. We checked into the Amaranth Suvarnabhumi Airport Hotel with time enough to freshen up before the group’s farewell evening dinner. Everyone except Rick and Janice gathered in the dining area. They were out collecting custom made clothes ordered from a tailor when they arrived in Thailand prior to the start of the main tour. They eventually joined the group late just in time to share their top 5 birds. They, along with José, and Greg, had opted out of the tour extension and were heading home the next morning.
Carol’s broken wrist remained frustrating for numerous reasons but adding insult to injury, the focus wheel on her bins had started acting up. The fix was to swap with Tom’s identical pair since Tom had two good hands for holding his bins and better equipped to deal with a fussy focus wheel. Using binoculars with only one hand is not easy, but at least a sticking focus wheel would no longer be an issue.
Day seventeen. The remaining members of the tour reconvened for a leisurely breakfast where we were joined by a local bird guru, Wichyanan “Jay” Limparungpatthanakij. He graduated with a Master’s Degree in Biology from Bangkok’s Mahidol University, focusing on the ecology of avian mixed-species foraging flocks. He is a member of the BCST Records Committee and an eBird reviewer for Thailand, is involved in a number of ornithological and ecological research projects in Thailand, and a freelance guide specializing in bird tours. He's also an active volunteer for conservation NGOs.
It turned out that Jay had spent a year as a high school foreign exchange student in southeast Wisconsin. Not only was Jay’s English impeccable, but he was familiar with many locations in Wisconsin! At the time we met Jay we had no idea he is the co-author of the newest “Birds of Thailand” field guide.

By late morning we were in the air on our a two-hour flight to Krabi, a bustling tourist city in the heart of Southern Thailand’s Sundaic forest habitat. New landscapes, cuisine, and of course birds awaited. As we deplaned it was duly noted that we had traded Thailand’s cool northern climate for hot humid conditions. Emphasis on humid.

After checking into our lodgings at the Green House Hotel and dropping our bags, we boarded long boards to cruise the Krabi River and associated labyrinth of the Krabi mangroves. Our boatmen’s keen ears and eyes picked up numerous birds lurking in the mangroves, often stopping and drawing near to try and bring birds into the open. During one attempt, he found a resting Mangrove Viper. Our daily list grew with Ashy Tailorbirds, Ruddy Kingfishers, Korean Flycatchers, and Sakhalin Leaf Warbler. Rufous-bellied Swallows and massive Brown-winged Kingfishers.

One highly sought after trip bird was Mangrove Pitta. True to form, as with pittas everywhere we’ve encountered them, they tend to make loud calls but throwing their voices with the art of a ventriloquist. After several failed attempts to draw one out, and with the afternoon waning, we vowed try again the next day. For now, our appetites were driving us to return to Krabi’s popular waterfront district, bursting with shops and restaurants. Jay suggested a floating restaurant which as it turned out, due to low tide, was more of a leaning restaurant. But the food was delicious.

The next morning we headed back to explore the mangroves, this time on land via the Mangrove Forest Walkway, a wooden boardwalk several feet above the water line. This was when we marveled at Jay’s amazing warbler ID capabilities as he sussed out several warbler species, each looking the same as the last. Eventually we heard not one but two Mangrove Pitta persistently. They seemed seemed tantalizingly close while at the same time, far away. We spent an inordinate amount of time pacing back and forth along the boardwalk peering into dense tangles of of mangrove roots. As we paced, we met a couple of foreign birders trying to track down the pittas. One of the birders, despite several trips to Thailand. If anything he was more keen to find one than us.

Finally, we caught sight of a pitta. Well, some of us did. The bird was barely visible through a tiny window of mangrove tangle but the placement of the scope was raised to such a high position that it was impossible for some to view the bird. A bit of creative scrounging produced enough wood to assemble a makeshift step stool. In the end, everyone got to see the pitta, thank goodness!
Leaving Krabi behind we drove to the Morakot Resort in our luxurious leather appointed rental van replete with rear seat video screens. In spite of the intense afternoon heat, the group was eager to keep birding so after we checked in and dropped our bags, we were off to explore part of Khao Pra Bang Khram, better known as Khao Nor Chu Chi, a 183 square kilometer sanctuary. There are many trails, some in an overgrown state providing opportunities for both forest edge species and birds of the forest interior. Orange-bellied Flowerpecker, Little and Purple-naped Spiderhunters and Whiskered Treeswift, Silver-rumped Spinetails, and Banded Woodpecker.

Following dinner at the resort, we ventured out that evening for a bit of owling. In no time at all we had our flashlights focused on a Brown Wood Owl that continued to escort us up and down the road, hooting all the way.
Not unlike birding in the heat of the desert southwest, the best time to bird in tropic heat it is early morning and late afternoon when birds tend to be more active. Walking a small narrow road we added Scaly-crowned, Chestnut-winged and Ferruginous Babblers plus a variety of new bubuls and a Gray-and-buff Woodpecker.

Veering off onto a side-track we picked up a stunning Van Hasselt’s Sunbird plus more warblers and flowerpeckers. The location of a Green Broadbill, with its distinctive rising yodeling, had us puzzled until we pinpointed it high in the foliage above. Always tricky to find a brilliant green bird in brilliant green surroundings.
Wisely choosing to take a break in the mid-day heat following lunch at the resort, some took naps while others photographed birds coming to resort feeders but by mid-afternoon we were antsy to get back into the forest. A different section presented us with another ‘pocket bird’: Rufous Piculet. A Rufous-tailed Tailorbird taxed our binocular skills as it darted in and out of sight before we added the last drongo species needed for a drongo slam - Crow-billed Drongo. Another broadbill was heard calling back and forth with another broadbill. Unlike the Green Broadbill, this Black-and-Yellow Broadbill was decked out with an array of yellow and pink feathers contrasted with an outrageous sky-blue bill. No better time than to retire to the resort and celebrate with some cold drinks.
The next morning, Tom was physically feeling out of sorts. While he went so far as to accompany the group, he stayed in the van while the rest of the group went forth to collect Buff-rumped Woodpecker, Chestnut-breasted Malkoha, Raffle’s Malkoha and a Black-and-Yellow Broadbill, the last of the birds found at Khao Nor Chi Chi.
Packing up our bags we lit out for the last lodge on the extension, Yoeser Beach Resort, located across the peninsula on the shore of the Gulf of Thailand. Tom still wasn’t feeling a whole lot better and again elected to stay behind, along with Carol,  while the rest of the group headed directly to Krung Ching, part of the Khao Luang National Park complex.
Day twenty-one, February 22. Tom, now very devoid of energy, missed the final full day of birding in the forests of Krung Ching. Carol was so concerned she spoke with the lodge owner, a Canadian, who had started the resort some years earlier with his Canadian born Thai wife (who sadly had succumbed to cancer a few years earlier). He suggested that Tom’s lack of energy was due to dehydration and that a visit to a local hospital was in order. He graciously drove us to a local hospital where we wound up spending the afternoon.
Tom was put on a saline drip lasting about two and a half hours while a blood workup was performed. Sure enough, he had a viral infection which had knocked him for a loop. With prescribed medication and cautioned to drink lots of liquids, we returned to the resort for more rest. Cost of the visit? A staggering $25 cash.
While we were now registered in three Thai hospitals - what a sorry lot we were - the group had been busy collecting more new birds. Banded Broadbill, Yellow-eared and Gray-breasted Spiderhunters, Golden-whiskered Barbets, Scaly-breasted Bulbuls and Sooty Barbets.
In fact, as Phil put it, the afternoon was “likely the most rewarding of our entire visit to Southern Thailand”. The list included Square-tailed Drongo Cuckoos, Violet Cucukoo, Black Hornbill, Rufous-winged and Maroon-breasted Philentomas, Black-throated babblers, and Fluffy-backed Tit-Babblers. Red-beared Bee-eater and Scarlet-rumped Trogon.
Rounding out the day they ticked Spectacled Spiderhunter, Green Iora, Red-billed Malkoha, Dusky Broadbills and one final bird for the day, Buffy Fish-Owl. About the only thing the group got that we didn’t mind missing was the first and only encounter with leeches for the whole trip. And the leech socks several had purchased for the trip did not stop the leeches (which Tom knew from his experiences with leeches in Vietnam).

The last day of the extension began with the group lounging about the resort, walking the beach, swimming in the resort’s pool, and organizing belongings for our eventual return to the states the next day. Unfortunately, our flight from Krabi back to Bangkok didn’t get in until late which put a crimp into the group gathering for one last farewell dinner. Just as well since everyone was pretty knackered plus both our guides were already prepping for their next Thailand tours which were to begin in less than 36 hours.
Epilogue: After Carol had broken her wrist we had been anxious to setup an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon in Tucson. An email exchange with friend Nancy Novak in Tucson resulted in an appointment. Two days after our return, Carol met with the surgeon. Then two days after that she had her surgery in late February. By late November, the hardware the surgeon had implanted to facilitate the healing process was removed. The binoculars with the focus wheel issue were sent into Nikon. Nikon’s lifetime warranty resulted in a new pair of binoculars to replace the old pair. If only fixing her wrist had been so simple.
While we missed some stellar birds on the last few days, our life bird total still exceeded well over 450 species while adding a number of new bird families, all the while enjoying a kaleidoscope of landscapes and tastebud challenging cuisine. Yet another memorable Tropical Birding tour. Hats off to our guides Laurie Ross and Phil Chaon (who has since joined the regular guide staff at TB), and “Thai Jay” who made IDing warblers in the peninsular look so easy.

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