Sunday, March 18, 2018

Nk h̄lāy chnid (Many Birds) - Thailand

It's been a whirl-wind two weeks in Thailand, and with little internet access this segment of our month in Southeast Asia will have to come in one post. We took a short hour-long hop from Phnom Penh to Bangkok to meet our friend and one of the best guides this side of the international date line - Par Sasirat. Par runs the Wild Bird Eco guide service based out of Bangkok, serving all over Thailand and beyond. This is our third trip with Par and every time has been a fantastic experience.

First stop was a location we've been too before, in fact on each of our trips. Kaeng Krachan National Park is a must see Thailand birding location, with over 500 species tallied there. The birding is phenomenal and the location is beautiful. We spend most of three days there and enjoyed every minute.

Silver-breasted Broadbill

Then we were off to the airport for a short flight down south to Phuket. The south of Thailand was the main focus of this trip as we had never been there before. As you move south new bird species opportunities present themselves.

The first afternoon brought us to a coral beach for a chance at a wish-list bird for Susan and I - Crab Plover. Ever since our miss on this species in Madagascar, knowing we'd have another long-shot chance was exciting. There are currently two individuals wintering a little north of Phuket and with some searching the beach we managed to locate them. What a bird and what a great afternoon.

Crab Plover with crab dinner
By evening we were staged for a big adventure. We were on the edge of Khao Sok National Park for a very early morning trek in the dark to a blind deep in the forest. The local villagers have developed this blind near a lekking spot for the Great Argus Pheasant. The Argus arrives at dawn almost every morning to display for females. In February and March he typically gets some action and the show can be phenomenal. We were up at 3 AM and walked two miles up 700 feet in elevation (at over 80F with nearly 100% humidity - the sweat was pouring off...) in the rain forest. We were secure in the blind well before light. The bird showed at dawn and started his morning chorus.

View through the blind portal

The blind

Returning from the blind
We both got our share of leech kisses during the trip, including this one I got visiting the Argus

The Argus forest
By afternoon we were in a mangrove forest in Khao Sok National Park adding more fantastic birds.

Black and Red Broadbill

Brown-winged Kingfisher
The next two days were spend chasing birds around Sri Phang Nga National Park with one especially difficult target bird - the Malayan Banded Pitta. These exceptionally beautiful birds were a joy to watch.
Malayan Banded Pitta female

Malayan Banded Pitta male
A Javan Frogmouth nest, with adorable chicks, was a special treat.

The nearby waterfall
We moved farther south to Khao Luang National Park and the Krung Ching Waterfall area. The especially beautiful forest held our attention for a couple of days with many amazing birds. The most special was my number one target bird for the entire trip - the Green Broadbill. This bird would round out our set of all the Southeast Asia broadbills. It took some work to get good looks of this treetop dweller, and even more work to get a few photos. Late one afternoon we dragged our guide Par to the waterfall at the end of a 8 kilometer trek through the forest, ending in a 300 foot descent on steps to the base of the falls. 

Green Broadbill
Krung Ching Waterfall

The lovely lady at the tiny restaurant where we had dinner for three nights.
The Krung Ching Forest
And finally we were off to our final destination, a special place deep in the south of Thailand - Hala Bala Wildlife Sanctuary less than a kilometer from the Malaysia border. We've been talking with Par about visiting this location for many years, but it was only recently that it was safe for foreigners to travel this far south in Thailand. Par has been guiding for over 30 years and has only taken three foreign clients to Hala Bala, and Susan and I were numbers two and three. This is the land of hornbills, with no less than 9 species of hornbill possible. We saw a lot, including life looks at Helmeted, Rhinoceros, and Bushy-crested. While birding the area it seamed we could walk no further than 100 yards without picking up another new life bird. It was a fantastic two days.

Our tally for the trip was 268 species in which 97 were new. Our total for Thailand now sits at 548 after three visits. Bird list can be viewed on my Thailand eBird page.

All too soon this adventure was over. A big thank you to our driver Chod who was a never ending source of entertainment, and found a few great birds for us too! And a special thank you to our friend and guide Par, an amazing birder, guide, and all around great person.

Rhinoceros Hornbill

Rufous-backed Dwarf Kingfisher
The scenery of Hala Bala

Our guide Par (left) and driver Chod
The local constabulary stopped in for a look at a Golden-whiskered Barbet

And how can I end this post without sharing a few of the entertaining restroom signs from Thailand. 

Friday, March 9, 2018

Cambodia - The Rest of the Story

We left the Vulture Restaurant and headed to the Mekong River at Kratie. Here we would see two special animals, the Mekong Wagtail and Mekong (Irrawaday) Dolphin. A boat trip in the morning got us out to some small islands in the river where we easily found a few of the resident wagtails. The large fresh water dolphins were easy to spot as they surfaced, but tricky to photograph. You always new where they just were, but never where they were about to be in the murky water. It was a fun trip on the river.

Our ride on the river

Guide Nara scouts for wagtails

The island home of the Mekong Wagtail

As close as I got to a good dolphin photo...

Mekong Wagtail

Then it was on to Mondulkiri and the Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary for a couple of days of mountain birding along the Viet Nam border. The higher elevation afforded us some slightly cooler weather from the near 100F we'd been experiencing for the past two weeks. The birding was exceptional and we added many more new species.

Birding the mountain rain forest

Nara and our local guide pose in the forest

Our final stop on the last day as we traveled to Phnom Penh for our flight out was to see the recently described Cambodia Tailorbird. The literature on this species describes it as "hiding in plain sight" as it was only discovered in 2009 and recognized as a species in 2013 - inside the limits of a city of millions of people! In this day and age that's pretty amazing.

Cambodia Tailorbird

We really enjoyed our time in Cambodia. Our special thanks go out to our hosts for the trip, Cambodia Bird Guide Association (who we recommend highly!), and especially to our wonderful guide Nara and driver Da. You guys were fantastic, and great fun to spend time with. Thanks for everything!

Our fantastic driver Da (L) and guide Nara. Thanks guys!!

Our total for species was 309, which included 67 life birds. Our Cambodia eBird lists are available here:

Cambodia bird lists

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Vultures and a Duck

We moved on, continuing northeast to the most uninhabited region of Cambodia, just a stone throw from the Laos border. Here we would continue to visit the dry deciduous dipterocarp forest, but this one has some remnant tracts of primary growth. It was spectacular. We were at the Okoki River inside the Chhep Wildlife Sanctuary, where pools in a line of the mixed evergreen forest following a water course providing habitat for globally threatened White-winged Duck. This duck is a beast, one of the largest duck species in the world. When you see it and hear it honking you think it's a large goose - until you see the obvious duck bill. They are extremely wary, so the Okoki site is a must visit location for the hides constructed near prime feeding pools. It is a nocturnal feeder, so seeing the bird required rising early and trekking through the forest to the hide in the dark. We've done this many times for grouse and prairie-chickens, but going out in the early morning for a duck seemed a bit strange. We entered the hide and sure enough, there was a single duck out on the pond. Very cool. We stayed for an hour or so as the light grew until the duck decided it was time to move to a more sheltered location along the river in the deep forest.

We stayed at the Okoki camp for two nights allowing extra time for duck chances if needed, and also to thoroughly bird the forest. There are 17 species of woodpeckers alone in this forest, as well as kingfishers, broadbills, pittas, and numerous other species. We camped there with support from the local village who provided the tents and did the cooking. It was spectacular.

Banded Kingfisher female

Our humble abode

Shower and toiled facilites

Walking through the forest

A view through the hide portal to the duck pond
Local fish from the river for grilling on the camp fire
We moved from Okoki just 13 miles as the vulture flies, but it took over an hour to drive around the forest on existing roads. Our next stop was Beong Toal, the "Vulture Restaurant." The Vulture Restaurant is a feeding program set up by the government of Cambodia and conservation NGOs to help sustain the 3 critically endangered species of vulture: Red-headed, White-rumped and Slender-billed Vultures. The world’s population of these vultures has suffered from Diclofenac (an NSAID given to treat cattle) poisoning which has caused a drastic decline in their numbers. In Cambodia cattle are not given this drug; however the lack of food is a problem for the vultures. The drug is unfortunately still in wide use in India.

We stayed in another tent camp, again supported by the local village. An early morning jaunt to the specially constructed viewing hide allowed us to watch the vultures feed on a recently provided cow carcass. As we arrived there were a pair of Golden Jackal prowling the site. The vultures continued to arrive as the light grew resulting in about 35 individuals for our viewing enjoyment. It was a fantastic morning.

White-rumped Vulture

Red-headed Vulture

Slender-billed Vulture

A new camp

Sleeping outside the tent to beat the heat (and mosquitoes)
When we left the vulture site we had reached 270 species for Cambodia, and 57 new life birds.