Birding Away in Thailand: Fun on a Non-birding Tour (November 2004)

In November 2004 my wife, Dorothy, and I visited Thailand on a tour organized by an AARP group and run by Collette Vacations. This was not a birding tour, and not another person in two busloads had a pair of binoculars. Nevertheless, wherever we go, I bird. Usually before the trip is over, I have interested several other people, and they point out birds that I have not seen. Sometimes there is free time when I just bird, but mostly I have my binoculars ready at all times. These trips always include bus rides to tourist sites, and I position myself next to a clear window and manage to identify birds on poles and wires and in nearby fields without binoculars. Identifying birds on a trip like this requires advance preparation, and I obtained Birds of Thailand by Craig Robson six months before we left, studied it for many hours, and marked species that I might see. Thailand has over 900 species of birds. We were in only northern Thailand from Bangkok to the border with Laos and Myanmar (formally Burma). (Yes, we were well north of and well in advance of the earthquake and tsunami.) Also we were not on a seacoast or in the mountains, so my possibilities for birds were limited. I was able to identify only 49 species, of which 37 were life birds.

Despite the severe limitations, we had some interesting experiences and good birds. We were in Bangkok for five nights before we flew to Chiang Mai in the far north for another six nights. Our hotel in Bangkok, the Radisson, was not in a birdy location, to say the least. We were surrounded by elevated highways to the front and virtually sidewalk-less streets on two sides. However, a canal separated one side of the grounds from a neighborhood of low-rise apartment buildings and small businesses. I spent several hours in the mornings before breakfast or in the late afternoon standing on the bridge over the canal scanning the riparian foliage and the rooftop antennas. Barn Swallows flew constantly up and down the canal. Other birds seen near the hotel were European Tree Sparrow (which were everywhere), Common Myna (also very common), Streaked-eared Bulbul, Asian Brown flycatcher, Pied Fantail, Oriental Magpie-Robin, Coppersmith Barbet, Spotted Dove (seen everywhere), and flying over, a pair of Painted Storks.

A tour of a coconut farm produced an Olive-backed Sunbird feeding on a blooming vine. Black Drongos were on the roadside wires, and while we were on a boat ride in the canals a White-Breasted Water Hen (related to Purple Swamp Hen and coots) walked along the side of the canal. White Wagtails and White-Vented Mynas were seen on the grounds of a temple. At an ancient temple site, Richardís Pipits were numerous, and a Japanese Sparrow hawk (an Accipiter) flew over. White-vented Mynas flew among the ruins and Asian Palm Swifts were overhead. At another old temple site I saw my first Red-breasted Flycatcher, and along the road while the bus was stopped in traffic an Asian Stonechat sat on a fence.

A trip north of Bangkok through extensive rice-growing country produced flocks of egret-like birds. We did not stop there, but bus-window birding produced large numbers of Asian Openbills (a kind of stork), Cattle Egret, and Gray Heron. I am sure a short stop using my scope would have produced more species.

One morning Dorothy and I spent a few hours in a park near downtown Bangkok just birding. As is typical of Bangkok, at the latitude of Honduras, it was hot (90 to 95F) and humid. Large-billed Crows were numerous, as they were at other sites. We saw an immature Black-naped Oriole and Oriental Magpie-Robins. Again, overhead were Asian Palm Swifts. We saw them at most places where we could see the sky. There are several other swifts in Thailand, and in the north I did identify House Swifts, which have a white chin and rump.

Chiang Mai is near the northern border, higher than Bangkok and about 10 degrees cooler. It was much more pleasant there. The hotel, the Chiang Mai Orchard, was in the city, but nevertheless, some interesting birds were seen. Several mornings I saw a dark thrush-like bird on the rooftops out our window on the sixth floor. Only on the last morning there was I able to get it in the right light to identify a Blue Whistling Thrush, seemingly well out of its normal habitat. Ashy Wood Swallows plied the skies in large flocks among Asian Palm Swifts and House Swifts. Red-whiskered Bulbuls were numerous in the palms in front of the hotel (and everywhere else) along with Common Mynas and a few Sooty-headed Bulbuls.

A trip to an elephant camp produced Ashy Drongo among other species I had already seen elsewhere. On a float trip on a bamboo raft a Blue-eared Kingfisher flew over. Along the Mekong River at Chiang Rai (the so-called ìgolden triangleî where opium was openly trafficked in the past), Little Egrets were flying between Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand. This was my only species in Myanmar and Laos. On a sandbar island in the river were several Grey-headed Lapwings and a large flock of dark ducks or geese that I was unable to identify from the boat. At a rest stop on the bus ride back to Chiang Mai near dusk, I saw several Greater Coucels (large dark ground birds resembling pheasants in their actions, but related to cuckoos).

At a temple on a mountain peak near Chiang Mai I ran into a mixed flock of small birds, which I could see looking down from into the dense trees and shrubs from a veranda. With limited time we were able to identify Black-Crested Bulbul, Japanese White-eye and Yellow-bellied Warbler. Several other species would have taken much more time to sort out, such as one of the blue-backed red-breasted flycatchers of which there are several species differing very little from one another. Another was a tit-like, small, grey-headed and crested bird with an olive-yellow body and tail and no eye ring, which I have not identified even though I saw it well and repeatedly. At a nearby jade factory I saw Black-throated Sunbird and White-rumped Munia. On the road to the temple in Chiang Mai, sitting on a concrete pier in a small street-side pond was a Black-capped Kingfisher. Fortunately, the bus was stopped at a light long enough for me to get my binoculars on this one.

Our most interesting birding experience was a visit to the agriculture campus of Chiang Mai University. This is a spot not often visited by tourists, and we had to engage a taxi (a pickup truck with a bed cap and bench seats). We werenít sure how we were going to get back, though we planned to stand on the roadside and hail another taxi. We had been birding for an hour or two and saw flocks of Barn Swallows over several ponds, besides several grass warblers (little green things) that I could not identify. I was looking for Wire-tailed Swallows. There were certainly at least one species besides Barn Swallows over the ponds. One looked very much like our Tree Swallow, but I never saw an adult Wire-tailed. The ìTree Swallowî was probably an immature Wire-tailed, but I could not be sure. Another target species was Plain-backed Sparrow, which we saw well. Pied Bushchats were along the roadside. We were studying two Japanese Pond Herons when someone approached us and asked what we were doing. We thought at first that he was a university security guard and was going to chase us out. Instead, he was a local birder, a retired high-school teacher, who had come to see a Eurasian Kestrel that had been reported there. He asked how we got there and rolled his eyes when we said by taxi. He offered to take us back since he was going into town anyway, but first he offered to show us a Minivet. Minivets are several species of various colors that to me resemble gnatcatchers in shape and actions. I had not seen one, so we accepted his offer. He took us toward the mountains at the back of the campus to a ìone-monkî monastery where Long-tailed Minivets had been seen. The monk was at a meeting in town, so we didnít meet him, but his dogs barked at us for a good while before they settled down. We looked over a pond into the forest edge and saw Black-crested Bulbul, Ashy Minivet (a life bird for our host), Black-hooded Oriole and a juvenile Black-napped or Slender-billed Oriole (they are indistinguishable in the field). There were others we didnít get good enough looks at. To top it off Mr. Poonpipat took us to the Chiang Mai museum of modern art where he treated us to tea and coffee while we got further acquainted. It was a great experience.

Thailand is an interesting and friendly country, and Iím sure an organized birding trip would produce hundreds of species. The only bad thing is the flight to get there. With stopovers the total time is over 30 hours, so if you visit be prepared for jetlag, especially when you get back. — by Sam Sinderson

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