Friday, 28 February 2014

Thailand 2014 - Hornbills and Broadbills

Khao Yai

11 February 2014

Another pre-dawn start, I left the hotel at 06:00 after a very hurried breakfast keen to get up the Khao Khieo road even earlier than yesterday. I wanted to be the very first vehicle along the road to stand any chance of seeing Pheasants. There was low cloud on the horizon which reduced/delayed the sunrise and consequently the dawn chorus. The temperature at HQ was  13.5C with less mist over the lake.

As I drove out of HQ a single large Hornbill flew over the car which was almost certainly Wreathed, but vanished over the forest canopy before I could be certain. As planned I drove to the top of the Khao Khieo road and back, and with no sign of any Pheasants, birded the first 2km stretch walking the roadside.

The totally incredible Long-tailed Broadbill

Birds were similar to yesterday though I found a large roost of 16 Oriental Pied Hornbill, which gave good views as they flew out to the forest to feed. A couple of massive Great Hornbill flew over the road, their immense wings making a loud swooshing long before the got near. Six Mountain Imperial Pigeon, 10 Banded Broadbill, 2 stunning Long-tailed Broadbill found nest building over the road, 2 Blue-winged Leafbird, 3 Asian Fairy Bluebird, 2 Greater Racker-tailed Drongo, 1 Bronzed Drongo, 1 leucogenis (grey) Ashy Drongo, 3 Black-winged Cuckooshrike, a Blue Whistling Thrush, 9 Hill Myna, 10 Striped Tit Babbler, 5 Rufous fronted Babbler and 10 White-bellied Yuhina were all recorded over the next few hours.

Oriental Pied Hornbill
Oriental Pied Hornbill

A highlight came when a flock of 40 Eye-browed Thrush flew in to the canopy along the road and fed furtively in the vegetation. 

Banded Broadbill
Black and Buff Woodpecker
Puff-throated Bulbul
Hill Myna
I decided to try the Campsite Hollow again. Initially it was quiet and I enjoyed views of the Siberian Blue Robins, White-rumped Sharma, Hainan Blue Flycatcher and Puff-throated Babbler. However all too soon three very noisy Thai photographers arrived and setup their pop-up hides behind me. They were not considerate and put on quite a show, calling to each other, crashing around and generally seeming to drive me away to find solace elsewhere. Apparently this is a common tactic of theirs, wanting the place to themselves.

Siberian Blue Robin
I decided to try Trail A, which runs out of the opposite side of the camp, along the river, through damp forest and bamboo for several kilometres. The trail is clearly maintained by Elephants with evidence of their recent ramblings very obvious. Two Scaly-breasted Partridge were encountered in the bamboo, a Blue-eared Kingfisher flushed accidentally from the stream, a Green-billed Malkoha showed briefly, 2 Black-naped Oriole, 4 Swinhoe's Minivet, another flock of 40 Eye-browed Thrush gave better views as the noisily fed on berries, and 6 Pale-legged Leaf Warbler gave great views streamside.

I briefly checked the Boonsong Lekgul campsite on the way out of the Park. The Blue Rock Thrush was still showing on its favourite roof, a Verditer Flycatcher appeared briefly, 3 Blue-winged Leafbirds gave a lovely display in the trees, and a flock of 40 Chestnut-flanked White-eye fed in the canopy.

Verditer Flycatcher
Blue Rock Thrush

Blue-winged Leafbird 

After a superb lunch back at the hotel we returned to the Park in the afternoon for a walk. We parked at the Watchtower car park then walked to HQ and back before wandering out to the Wildlife Watchtower for dusk. The tower overlooks a large salt lick where many of the hidden forest animals come to take minerals. 

Rufous-winged Buzzard beside the Hotel Reception

We enjoyed views of over 20 Oriental Pied Hornbill and 8 Great Hornbill flighting in to roost. Another Blue Rock Thrush lived under the tower and gave reasonable views but hid on the roof whenever I tried to photograph it. As dusk approached a huge group of Wild Boar came out of the Forest and began eating on the grass at the top of the hill. However as it became darker Mandy started to get nervous so we wandered back to the car. A Grey Nightjar and a Great-eared Nightjar flew overhead. No sign of any Elephants though....

Wild Boar leave the forest at dusk to feed

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Thailand 2014 - Close encounters of the Bird kind

Khao Yai

10 February 2014

Breakfast at the Hotel started at 06:00. I arrived at 06:03 and was driving to the Park entrance by 06:10. It was still dark when I drove through the gates and along the road. I was fixed on my objective of reaching the Khao Khieo road before any traffic. It had been a cool night, 11C reading on the HQ sign as I passed by. The cool air caused the most amazing swirls of mist over the reservoir and lakes as I drove along the road and the sunrise over the forest was spectacular.

Another vehicle was parked beside the Khao Khieo road and a birder and guide were moving along the road. I didn't stop, focused on being the first to the higher elevations where surely I might find a Siamese Fireback or Silver Pheasant. All the information suggests that getting there early is key and once the traffic starts to move the Pheasants disappear into the forest.  

Red Junglefowl
A couple of Red Junglefowl feeding quietly along the roadside were encouraging, but as I drove higher and higher I found just 2 Blue Whistling Thrush but no Pheasants.  At the top I walked the boardwalk circuit to the view point. The mist shrouded much of the forest but I spent some time enjoying canopy level views of various phylloscs and flycatchers.

Bar-winged Flycatcher Shrike
Eastern Crowned Warbler
I headed back downhill and arriving at the flatter forest area parked the car and birded the roadside on foot. Almost immediately I heard some distinct scratching from the undergrowth. Moving carefully I found the perpetrators - two Scaly-breasted Partridge.

Scaly-breasted Partridge
Birding along the road produced some nice birds: a Black and Buff Woodpecker, 2 Greater Flameback, 4 Oriental Pied Hornbill, a Mountain Imperial Pigeon, 2 Banded Broadbill, a stunning Long-tailed Broadbill, 2 Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, 1 Ashy Drongo, a Common Green Magpie, 4 Swinhoe's Minivet, 2 Striped Tit Babbler and 10 White-bellied Yuhina.

Greater Racket-tailed Drongo
Swinhoe's Minivet
After several hours of hard birding I drove over to the Pa Gluay Mai Campsite. Behind the shower blocks is a rather famous (in birding circles) hollow. Over the years it has attracted some excellent birds, most famously Coral-billed Ground Cuckoo over several years, though unfortunately not recently.  I took the awkward side track into the hollow to avoid disturbing anything or anyone already in there. Fortunately being lunchtime I had it to myself - well apart from a few very friendly birds.....

Ground Squirrel
I was feeling a bit dejected after my Pheasant failure, but this soon changed. As I crept in an Orange-headed Ground Thrush hopped across the clearing and flicked into cover, followed by an adult male Siberian Blue Robin. I sat myself down on a rather comfortable tree root and waited.  Within minutes birds started to appear between me and the stream. Over the next hour and a half I enjoyed the most intimate views of a stunning male Hainan Blue Flycatcher (which fed within inches of me, landing next to me on the root and singing from a close branch), a female Blue-throated Flycatcher, two adult male Siberian Blue Robins (which fed within a few feet of me), a pair of White-rumped Sharma, Puff-throated and Abbot's Babbler (which actually hopped along my root, looked at me and fed literally inches behind me while I sat photographing the other birds), and the Orange-headed Ground Thrush which came back several times. A brilliant experience, just me and the birds, no disturbance, no noise, no Thai photographers. It was like being in a Walt Disney movie - a wonderful experience and without the need for a pop-up hide! 

Abbott's Babbler checking me out before joining me on the tree root
Male Hainan Blue Flycatcher which fed around me for hours

Female Blue-throated Flycatcher
Orange-headed Ground Thrush

It sat on this branch for ten minutes
Puff-throated Babbler
Male White-rumped Sharma
Female White-rumped Sharma
Siberian Blue Robin

I eventually dragged myself away, aiming to get back to the hotel for lunch with Mandy. I stopped briefly at the Boonsong Lekgul campsite. Approaching yesterdays stake out a bright bird flicked into view. A stunning male White-throated Rock Thrush.

White-throated Rock Thrush

Further along the road a Blue Rock Thrush appeared on the roof of a cabin. Showing a reddish belly it was of the phillipensis sub species.

A phillipensis Blue Rock Thrush

Around the camp a number of Samba Deer enjoyed the peace and quiet feeding within a metre of me as I walked by.

Samba Deer
Variable Squirrel
As I walked back to the car park a commotion from the nearby trees led me to a flock of White-crested Laughingthrush, a species I first saw in the Himalayan foothills. I spent half an hour walking along Trail B where I found 2 Silver-breasted Broadbill and a Green Broadbill, before returning for lunch at the Kirimaya.

White-crested Laughingthrush

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Thailand 2014

Khao Yai

9 February 2014

After a challenging six months in a new role with a new company I needed a well-earned holiday, as did my equally hard working wife, Mandy. Somewhere sunny, warm, relaxing with great hotels near to some relatively easy birding - harder than it sounds. Having visited Thailand before it was an easy choice. With a little research on the brilliant Mr and Mrs Smith and Nick Upton's ThaiBirding websites I soon located a couple of superb boutique hotels close to some great National Parks, beaches and birding. 

We would stay just outside Khao Yai National Park for five days, then travel south around Bangkok to Pran Buri, near Hua Hin on the coast and near to the prime wader sites of Laem Pak Bia and Pak Thale, before returning to Bangkok via the Kaeng Krachan National Park. This should allow a reasonable balance of relaxing with Mandy and some excellent low-key birding. A hire car would enable me to get around and travel relatively easily between locations.

After a slightly traumatic Friday evening journey to Heathrow due to the M25 being shut under floods and much of the surrounding minor roads impassable, we flew to Bangkok with EVA, who very kindly upgraded us to Elite Class for the outbound flight. After arrival  we picked up our Nissan Almera hire car and drove to Khao Yai. The drive was quite eventful as I got used to the driving behaviours of the locals and tackled the 'most dangerous road in Thailand' in the dark, including the obligatory U-turns across three lane oncoming motorway traffic. Fortunately Mandy's map reading was great and we only made one slight wrong turn before we arrived at our first hotel - Kirimaya, just outside the National Park gates. 

Khao Yai National Park is part of a World Heritage site and was established in 1962. The extensive 2,168 square kilometres of seasonal evergreen forest habitat is of a very high quality. There is a tarmac access road running some 30km into the western forest offering  access to extensive trails. The park opens at 06:00 each morning and remains open well after dark. The entrance fee for westerners was 400 Bhat per person plus 40 Bhat for the car, not cheap but if it helps to preserve this wonderful forest and the wealth of wildlife that depends on it then I have no issue.

After the long journey I was in no hurry to get up on the first morning so we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast overlooking the golf course at the hotel. Frustratingly the extensive concrete buggy tracks around the golf course were only open to golfers and we were not able to walk around the habitat. However the hotel grounds had a variety of habitats and attracted a few interesting species. The best of these was a pair of Thick-billed Warblers that spent the first morning in the bamboo beside reception and gave great views, though they disappeared when I got my camera....

The view from our room! (Photo by Mandy Buckland)
Kirimaya Resort (Photo by Mandy Buckland)
Kirimaya Resort (Photo by Mandy Buckland)
I spent a little while photographing some of the common birds around the hotel before we headed into the National Park for a reccy ahead of my planned early morning assault. In addition to the Thick-billed Warblers I saw a few other new species including a (presumed) Japanese Sparrowhawk, a Plaintive Cuckoo, two Black -headed Oriole and two Sooty-headed Bulbul.  A flyover Black-winged Kite, two Indian Roller and loads of Yellow-browed Warbler was also rather nice after breakfast.

Paddyfield Pipit

Peaceful Dove
Taiga Flycatcher (male)
Taiga Flycatcher (female)
Two-barred Greenish Warbler

Plaintive Cuckoo
Indian Roller
Japanese Sparrowhawk

There was a large tree on the golf course that was bare of leaf but covered in the most beautiful yellow centred red flowers. These seemed to last for only a day and then dropped to the ground like autumn leaves, replaced by another flower. Stunning in the morning sunshine.

Large flowering tree - Kirimaya Resort (Photo by Mandy Buckland)

Flowering Tree
The fallen flowers litter the ground (Photo by Mandy Buckland)

The objective in the National Park was to get my bearings of the main birding locations, particularly the Khao Khieo road which I wanted to visit early in the morning in the hope of encountering the local Siamese Fireback. We soon found ourselves at HQ and checked the Boonsong Lekgul campsite. Here I encountered my first Thai birders, well more photographers really - just one pair of binoculars between them and all with a small fold up hide surrounding a prepared and baited perch. Apparently this was the site for Mugimaki Flycatcher, but unfortunately the two wintering birds seemed to have moved off with the warmer weather. However talking to the guy with bins soon had us enjoying views of a nesting pair of Blue-bearded Bee Eater and getting the lowdown on a few other good birds.

Blue-bearded Bee Eater
After a good look around the campsite I found the entrance to Trail B just opposite the junction. I decided to investigate and with Mandy walked about 300m just to get a feel for the forest. I crossed a small stream and began to walk out of the gulley. However a movement almost at my feet caused me to stop. A bird bounced away, but paused briefly. I lifted my bins and there in full view was a stunning male Blue Pitta! Mandy came around the corner as it bounced out of view. We carefully stalked further along and fortunately it reappeared briefly. Not bad for a quick reccy!!! (I didn't see another all trip!). 

Pig-tailed Macaque
Sika Deer
After the excitement of the Pitta we drove slowly along the Khao Khieo (Radar Station) Road all the way to the view point. Here a circular boardwalk takes you to a clifftop view over the forest stretching endlessly away into the distance. We spent some time enjoying the view here and a few birds including a dazzling Asian Fairy Bluebird and some Asian House Martins before returning through the park to the Hotel. Tomorrow I would start pre-dawn.

White-rumped Sharma
Asian Fairy Bluebird