What a great year, my first as a birder. My list shows 232 species which is about 25% of the species recorded in Thailand. I should imagine there are easily at least 150 unidentified birds in addition. I really have seen a lot of birds and it stands to reason that as an unaccompanied novice, for most of my birding, that there are a lot of unidentified birds. It's also the case that a number of these unidentifieds have become identified as my knowledge and craft increases. I have seen a lot of raptors in the air but I apply my own criteria before listing one, which is, would I recognise it if I saw it again, and for many of these birds the truthful answer is, no, so it doesn't get listed.
The real story, however, is the diversity of birds in this beautiful country and the many different locations our interest in birds helped us to visit. From Lumphini & Putthamonthon Parks in Bangkok to our local rice paddy in Ratchaburi we looked at birds at every conceivable location in between. It seems wherever you go in Thailand there are great birds nearby.
I set eyes for the first time on the critically endangered spoon-billed sandpiper in the pools of Laem Pak Bia, Phetchaburi province, in November. This is a truly sought after bird and I think it is fair to say it is on the brink of extinction. That's certainly the message coming from the scientific community. There are real issues about the viability of its very specific breeding sites in the Pacific coast of the north eastern Russian Federation: scientists observed one solitary breeding pair this summer. So it was humbling to see this species for the first time, three birds feeding away without an apparent care in the world as to their future.
The mudflats at Laem Pak Bia are one of my favourite sites and it was there in November that I saw Chinese egret for the first time, another rarity, endangered but not to the same extent as the spoon-billed sandpiper. The mudflats have a certain bleakness. I was very pleased to return there a few weeks later and identify the Chinese egret myself thanks to its strange skewed body contortion when it walks and its eye shape. I love looking at the variety of curlews, the whimbrels and other shorebirds that flock in the mudflats most of the year. There are usually a lot of gulls, terns and herons thereabouts, an abundance of collared kingfishers and on one occasion this year I saw a Brahminy kite scavaging on the ground. I'll hopefully make more progress with identifying gulls this year. There are usually some great crested terns on the posts that lead out into the sea from the mudflats. I also have a very badly overexposed photo of an unidentified raptor perched on these posts. In September I spotted a solitary tattler for the first time on these same mudflats. Add in huge numbers of shorebirds.... stints, stilts, sandpipers, redshanks, greenshanks, plovers. It is a truly amazing place all year round.
The one location that I haven't visited in Laem Pak Bia is the sand spit and I must do this in 2010. Most reports I read confirm the presence of rare birds there. The Deserted Building and The Kings Projects are likewise great places to view shorebirds in the Laem Pak Bia area and I must have made several visits to both throughout the year; I have seen quite large flocks of painted storks at the former plus on a couple of occasions I was able to witness the very substantial flocks of black-tailed godwits that live there, performing. These would have made brilliant photographs but alas it took me until mid-December to purchase a decent camera. Inadvertently I reported the black-tailed godwits as bar-tailed which had Phil Round on to me immediately seeking confirmation! Oopsadaisy! I have no problem correcting mistakes and did so immediately.
A further highlight of the year was joining a Bird Conservation Society of Thailand boat trip, led by Phil Round, out into the Gulf of Thailand. I was thrilled to see an osprey about which most of my companions were completely indifferent. Inter alia we saw 46 great crested terns, 25 + great cormorants, and 2 Irrawaddy dolphins on this trip. In effect the trip became a master class on terns.
Shorebirds present huge difficulties to a novice like me but with experience and practise I am getting better at making correct identifications. It has also helped enormously to be able to accompany an expert like Phil Round on a couple of occasions. Phil is also very good at explaining practical ways of distinguishing birds like Chinese egret and Nordmann's greenshanks. My efforts have also been hugely assisted by the arrival of decent optics and a copy of Peter Hayman's (et al.) Shorebirds: An Identification Guide. Sadly this publication is out of print, I have a copy of it thanks to the efforts of a mate, Tony. It has astonishing depth of coverage and is invaluable in the field; I am surprised it is out of print. I recently learned from it that you can distinguish spotted and common redshank by the amount of red on their bills: for the spotted the red is confined to their lower mandibles. Invaluable information for me.
Close by Laem Pak Bia and nearer to our home is an area called Khao Yoi in Phetchaburi province. I regularily watch birds at a number of locations in this area. The undoubted highlight was in August when I saw about 80 spot-billed pelicans landing in a fish pond. They were disturbed and flew off before I could count them and I would say my approximate count was understated. I also saw some largish (20-30 birds) flocks of painted stork in this area on a number of occasions. These are beautiful, strange, mysterious birds to look at. I think of High Court judges in their robes when I see painted stork!
Painted stork, mycteria leucocephala, Khao Yoi, 20.08.09
Elsewhere in the Khao Yoi I saw some beautiful birds throughout the year: cotton pygmy-goose, pheasant-tailed jacana, yellow bittern, black bittern, little grebe, pacific golden plover, pink-necked green pigeon, crow-billed drongo, oriental cuckoo, mugimaki flycatcher plus more common birds.
We travelled around a fair amount notwithstanding Luna being pregnant and ultimately giving birth to our son, Benedict, on 7th July 2009. Pre-Benedict, in March, we headed south for a few days to Pranburi in Prachuap Kiri Khan Province...... the Pranburi forest park yielded a significant number of unidentified species but we did see and hear a significant number of green peafowls, a stunning white morph asian pardise flycatcher with its amazingly long tail and the sea shore at Dolphin Bay gave us a beautiful pacific reef egret. A trip to the marsh area of Sam Roi Yot National Park yielded a pair of stunning pied kingfishers. Possibly my favourite species. A few days later we were back on the road south for a trip to Khao Sok National Park in Surat Thani province in the south of Thailand; I didn't manage to see any of the target pittas but we did see a beautiful rufous-backed kingfisher, a tiny ball of bright orange perched on a fence near a stream and a nesting black-naped monarch.
Black-naped monarch, hypothymis azurea, Khao Sok National Park, 31.03.09
In fact I originally recorded this bird as a blue and white flycatcher! Later in the year I saw the same bird elsewhere and with more knowledge of and exposure to the flycatcher genera it was quite clear the bird was not a flycatcher but a monarch:it is the overall colour that stuck in my head and I note from the bird's taxanomic name that it is described as azure. I managed to get the above photo of the original bird wrongly identified.
During this trip we headed to Krabi, on Thailand's western coast, the Andaman sea and also had a few days on Phi Phi island; the highlights here were looking at the frigate birds which kettle to the south of the islands. Sadly I was unable to identify what particular species they were. Phi Phi also has a very large population of pied imperial pigeons which are very pleasant to view; we did not see any Nicobar pigeons, one of our target species. We also saw this groovy asian glossy starling with its wine red eyes, quite a spectacle. It is a fairly common bird in the south of Thailand.
Asian glossy starling, apolonis panayensis, Koh Phi Phi, 06.05.09
Our next significant trip came in October when Benedict was three months old. We drove south once more, this time to Chumphon, on the Gulf of Thailand coast for The Raptor Watch organised by the Thai Raptor Group , a group of scientists and enthusiasts. The watch is amazing because it is possible to see thousands of raptors; when we visited first time, mainly oriental honey buzzards, but also chinese and japanese sparrowhawks, on their annual southbound migration from the eastern palearctic, that is from Russia east of the Ural mountains. I saw a beautiful lineated barbet and an arctic warbler in the bushes around the raptor watch site. I have to say the warbler was a particular pleasure as I spent about 20 minutes on its identification.
This kicked off a very active spell for us, largely due to school holidays in October. We drove north to Chiang Mai for a few days with an overnight stop in Nakhon Sawan which enabled me to visit Bueng Boraphet. This is a very large lake/swamp which is one of the most important water bird sites in Thailand. On this trip the highlights were a white-browed crake and darter. Our guide advised that the sought after ibises could only be seen in the late afternoon. I had scheduled a morning for Bueng Boraphet and was reluctant to alter this with a hotel booked in Chiang Mai for that same evening.
Our trip north was very much about dipping my toe into the water and I have to say it worked well. I got a real taster of what is possible and of locations. On alternate days I birded in Huai Tueng Tao, Doi Inthanon & Doi Chiang Dao. It was good to be armed with my Thai driver's license and a work ID card because it saved us a fortune on national park entry fees and indeed we even managed to enter Chiang Mai zoo at local rates.
Huai Tueng Tao is a real gem situated just outside Chiang Mai. In fact it is a perfect location for birders and non-birders and there are pleasant restaurants around the reservoir. Thanks in the first instance are to Nick Upton's www.thaibirding.com but thanks also to Tony Ball's http://thaibirds.blogspot.com. This blog features many entries about the birds at this location. I had a very gentle afternoon there and observed taiga flycatcher, black-collared starling, sooty-headed bulbul, pied bushchat & white wagtail. As befits the world's worst birder, a large number of unidentified birds! What has become of Tony Ball, his blog has not been updated since March 2008?
white wagtail, motacilla alba, Huay Teng Tao, Chiang Mai, 13.10.09
Doi Inthanon was amazing. A bad day weather wise with poor visibility and more reminiscent of a Scottish summer's day on Ben Lomond, Scotland, an hour's drive form Glasgow. Cold, wet, gray and crowded! On the summit we saw dark-backed sibia, chestnut-tailed minla, green-tailed sunbird and flavescent bulbul without making any effort. The first three are all great looking birds, far more exotic than the field books portray them, really amazing colours.
chestnut tailed minla, minla strigula, Doi Inthanon NP, 14.10.09
Lower down the mountain we saw ashy-throated warbler, a hill-blue flycatcher and a black-crested bulbul.
I am almost embarassed to report that on 15.10.09 I saw a forest wagtail in Chiang Mai zoo, suitably playing in the tiger's water pond!
The northern highlight was Doi Chiang Dao, about an hour's drive to the north of Chiang Mai. What a beautiful area, a very striking large mountain with comparatively easy access. I drove up the Muang Kong road and the first bird on my list for the day was eurasian jay, hopping around in the tree tops. Many, many unidentified birds, a possible rufous-winged buzzard inter alia, so I was very pleased with this dark-sided flycatcher below, which posed for me and which I think I have correctly identified.
Dark-sided flycatcher, muscicapa ferruginea, Doi Chiang Dao, 16.10.09
Unfortunately there were many unidentifieds and partials and possibly some quite interesting birds but alas, I would be guessing. Definites on red-whiskered bulbul and a grey-headed canary flycatcher. The bulbul is particularily popular as a caged bird in Thailand so I felt very good at seeing it and many others in the wild. The flycatcher, in my humble opinion, is straight out of the top drawer, a real visual feast of contrasting colours. I think if I taught anything related to fashion or design I would require all my students to observe birds and their colours.
We headed south from Chiang Mai on the morning of 17.10.09 and I had it in my mind to make a stop at Bueng Boraphet as I desperately wanted to see the ibises. Well I did and it probably was the best birding experience I had in the whole year. Perhaps I might call it my Attenborough moment because I really felt as if I was on a wild life location shoot.
Courtesy of Mr Phanom, Buang Boraphet's resident bird guide/boatman, we were in a perfect location on an island for the arrival of the ibises and as if by appointment they flew in at about 17:20h.