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Thatorn Rice Fields & Riverside
(Updated 22/12/16)
 Introduction 
Thatorn (pronounced Tar Torn), in Chiang Mai province, is a village on the Mae Kok River, close to the border with Myanmar. A series of floodplains contain good soils for agriculture and a large area of cultivated fields, pools, riverside vegetation, ditches and copses provides enough habitat for quite a number of birds.

Despite the fact that there has been a shift from rice cultivation to vegetables alongside the river, which has greatly reduced the number of species that occur here, there are still rice fields south of the village meaning that Thatorn remains a good place to find a wide range of open-country species, particularly migratory birds in winter due to this site's northerly location. Although the habitat is not as good as it once was there are still a lot of good birds to be found and Thai rarities can still be discovered here.

Easy access to a large area where birds can be found and some pleasant accommodation make a stop at Thatorn a worthwhile and enjoyable stop for birdwatchers.
 
Sunset over the rice fields at Thatorn
(Photo by Nick Upton)
 Birding Highlights 
Between mid-November and mid-April a wide range of migrant species can be found around Thatorn and one of the most stunning birds here is Siberian Rubythroat; good numbers of them winter in any scrubby vegetation here alongside an abundance of Dusky Warblers. When rice fields are muddy and wet Citrine Wagtail is common as are White Wagtails which are worth looking at carefully for various subspecies. In the same habitat Red-throated Pipit can be common and it is well worth examining these closely to see if any Rosy Pipits are with them; on one occasion one sharp-eyed Dutch birder alongside me found Thailand's second Buff-bellied Pipit. Indeed, this site can turn up almost anything as I also found Thailand's second Common Chiffchaff here and have also seen other Thai rarities including Eurasian Cuckoo, Black-headed Bunting and Russet Sparrow.

Jerdon's Bushchat is also a draw for birders here and while sightings are still made it certainly is not an easy bird to locate. Baikal Bush Warbler winters here in surprisingly large numbers although it is a real skulker, while Chestnut-capped and Yellow-eyed Babblers are resident in long grass/reeds.
 
Siberian Rubythroat
(Photo by Nick Upton)

Eastern Marsh Harrier
(Photo by Nick Upton)
  The Thatorn area can also be good for raptors and during the "winter" months a sighting of a spectacular male Pied Harrier is very likely with Eastern Marsh Harrier also a regular visitor. Small numbers of Rufous-winged Buzzards are resident as well as Black-winged Kite while Common Kestrel is a fairly common winter visitor. Merlin is a real rarity in Thailand but it has been seen at Thatorn and further records are likely while there is a strong passage of Amur Falcons in October which can extend into November or even early December.

A few waders can also be seen in this area. Little Ringed Plover is common and Temminck's Stint can be found in the river along with small numbers of Small Pratincoles when the water level is low. Long-billed Plover has been seen but is not that likely to be recorded again due to problems with the habitat along the Mekong a little further north. Oriental Pratincole can also be seen at the right time of year and it is sometimes possible to find River Lapwing while Common Sandpiper and Common Snipe are fairly abundant. The rice fields here are also one of the only sites in Thailand where Green Sandpiper is common.
A checklist of the birds for this location can be found here - Thatorn Bird Checklist.
  Bird Watching Trips:
If you need help organizing a bird watching trip to Thailand, take a look at the suggested itineraries for ideas on creating a tailor-made trip and contact me for advice: Thailand bird tours.
 Travel Information 
Use the interactive map below to plan your route to Thatorn rice fields and riverside. The blue lines show the routes from Thatorn village (A) to the riverside (B) and rice fields (C).
Getting to the village of Thatorn is very easy, situated as it is on the main road heading north from Chiang Mai. If you are driving then take highway 107 north out of the city (it is the road that heads to Mae Rim which is signposted from the city centre) and continue until eventually seeing signs for Ban Thatorn. Driving this route does not require any turnings from the main road, eventually you will come to the bridge in Thatorn over the Kok river. There are several stretches of this road which have a lot of hairpin bends and it is inevitable that one will get stuck behind some very slow moving traffic; be careful, there is some very dangerous driving occurring along here and it is a ridiculous thing for visiting birders to attempt to drive this route in the dark with many badly lit, badly driven and slow-moving vehicles along it, not to mention dogs, people out jogging in black tracksuits and other obstacles. Thailand has one of the highest rates of deaths on the road in the world and driving this road at night would be high risk. The journey takes around 3 hours.

For those using public transport things are easy; go to the Chang Puek bus station in Chiang Mai and there are lots of buses to Thatorn. I have not done this for some years so cannot advise on the fare, but the buses are not air-conditioned so will be very cheap - the journey takes around 4-5 hours. It is necessary to hire a tuktuk to get to Chiang Puek bus station.
 Finding Birds 
A wide range of open country species can be seen across the area but the rice fields and riverside offer slightly different habitats which means that each one has certain species that are more likely to be found in one than in the other. It must be remembered that the dirt tracks in this area are used by local farmers and are on private property so please show respect to this by parking appropriately and giving way to agricultural vehicles. Locals are friendly towards birders so please do not give them any reason to change their opinions.
Thatorn Rice Fields: Access to the rice fields is via a couple of dirt tracks a few kilometres southwest of the village of Thatorn. Heading back towards Fang from Thatorn there is a rustic looking fuel station about 1.5 kilometres south of the village, shortly after this (a few hundred metres) there is the first of two dirt tracks with the other is a little further back along the road. Both of these tracks can be a bit rutted and are quite narrow so it is inadvisable to drive far along them in a saloon car.

Pied Bushchat
 
Plain Prinia

Brown Shrike
 
Grey-headed Lapwing
(Photos by Nick Upton)
 

Although agricultural intensity here is quite high, most of the plots are quite small so there are numerous small field margins as well as lots of small ditches with scrubby vegetation in them where skulking species may be found.

Resident species here include Pied Bushchats perched upon fence posts and tall vegetation as well as good numbers of Black-collared Starling and Chestnut-tailed Starling. The attractive Plain-backed Sparrow can be seen here with flocks of House and Eurasian Tree Sparrows and this is one of the very few places in Thailand where Barn Swallow breeds. Black-winged Kite is also resident as are Rufous-winged Buzzards which can sometimes be spotted in areas where infield trees are at their densest. Small numbers of Horsfield's (Australasian) Bushlarks breed here too but they are very scarce although Oriental Skylark is more abundant but certainly not common. Plain Prinia is a common bird in many parts of Thailand but the blanfordi subspecies resident here is significantly different to the herberti subspecies of the central plains in both plumage and call.

Migrant species make birding this site between October and April potentially quite exciting and I have found both Russet Sparrow and Common Chiffchaff here in recent years. Dusky Warbler and Siberian Rubythroat are common and can be found in the scrubby undergrowth while Eastern Stonechat and Brown Shrike make themselves obvious perched upon posts. Species such as Bluethroat, Eurasian Wryneck and Thick-billed Warbler are less abundant but always present.

On the fields the widest variety of species can be seen when they are muddy and wet, before the rice begins growing making this a great site for Citrine Wagtail and Green Sandpiper and sometimes flocks of Red-throated Pipits can be seen; these should be checked for rarer Pipits. Waders usually include Red-wattled and Grey-headed Lapwings, Common Sandpiper, Little Ringed Plover and Common Snipe. In the early morning there is often a thick fog in these fields making viewing difficult but in the late afternoon scanning the fields is often rewarded by sightings of fantastic Pied Harriers and Eastern Marsh Harriers hunting; in October sightings of Amur Falcon are likely as they pass through on migration.

Thatorn Riverside: The riverside near Thatorn is an area that once hosted wintering birds in much higher abundance but increased irrigation has changed cropping from rice to cash crops such as garlic. However, with some effort lots of exciting species can still be found in the remaining scraps of uncultivated riverside and ditches as well as a few birds on exposed sand and gravel during dry periods.


Pied Harrier
 
Small Pratincole

Yellow-bellied Prinia
 
Chestnut Munia
(Photos by Nick Upton)
 

Long grass/reeds at the river's edge near the old water tower used to hold a good number of skulking birds but in early 2016 almost all of this habitat was destroyed and birders will have to look further along the river for scraps of habitat. Jerdon's Bushchat probably persists here but finding them is not easy although the sheer abundance of Yellow-bellied Prinia, Chestnut-capped Babbler and Baya Weaver mean that these species are likely to be seen eventually. Other resident species include Yellow-eyed Babbler and Chestnut Munia both of which can be seen with some effort.

Migrant birds present between October and April make birding along the river quite rewarding. Although Buntings are rare these days in Thailand I found Black-headed Bunting at the riverside in both 2014 and 2015. Baikal Bush Warbler is surprisingly common in low cover but tough to observe and in the tall vegetation species such as Oriental Reed Warbler, Black-browed Reed Warbler, and perhaps rarer Acrocephalus, are most likely to be found. Species such as Black-collared Starling, Eastern Stonechat, Brown Shrike and Long-tailed Shrike are common and often male Pied Harriers can be observed gliding over the reeds and fields.

Birding on the river is not easy as there seem to be constant changing in its course but it is possible to follow local people's trails to the water's edge. The water level is usually too high for birds until mid-December but when it does recede there are a few sandy areas exposed which attract Common Sandpiper, Temminck's Stint, Little Ringed Plover and a few pairs of breeding Small Pratincoles. Wintering Citrine Wagtails can usually be found here as can White Wagtail and as the day draws to a close a variety of small passerines may be seen coming to drink. Although there is not much habitat for them River Lapwing can sometimes be seen here and from February onwards Oriental Pratincole nest on exposed stony areas.

In Thatorn itself good views of House Swift can be seen coming to roost under the bridge just before dusk and a little after dusk a pair of Barn Owls can frequently be seen from the bridge as they circle and call. In March-May several of the restaurants in the village have Barn Swallows nesting in them - one of only a few locations for this species to breed in Thailand.

Birding in the farmland is not what it once was but keen birders can poke around scrappy areas and perhaps find something unusual - I observed a calling Eurasian Cuckoo here once - while species such as Asian Barred Owlet and Racket-tailed Treepie can be found in areas with trees. A large ditch runs through the farmland and as one drives towards the water tower and riverside a couple of exposed areas of low water are passed. It is worth looking for Greater Painted Snipe, Common Moorhen and Ruddy-breasted Crake here; the habitat looks like it could still play host to wintering birds such as Buntings, Bush Warblers and Reed Warblers. In the more open areas Oriental Skylark is present in small numbers and Paddyfield Pipit is also present although usually outnumbered by Richard's Pipit in "winter".

 Facilities

The village of Thatorn has been hosting small numbers of tourists for many years so there are plenty of places to stay where owners and staff speak English. Down some of the small side roads are some really cheap, simple guesthouses for those on a very tight budget and there are some slightly better places along the river.


Hill Temple, Thatorn
(Photo by Nick Upton)
  I usually stay at Garden Home Nature Resort which is run by a friendly family and is situated along the river - just cross the bridge and turn left and it can be found about 400 metres along the road. Cheap rooms are available but the small bungalows are pleasant and reasonably priced with warm water showers and air conditioning. The best thing about this place is the excellent food and helpful staff that get things sorted out quickly; any reasonable request can be accommodated. Others often use Thatorn Hills Resort which is situated on a slope on the left hand side of the road just before entering the village of Thatorn from the south. During peak season booking is advisable but at any other time there is enough accommodation around to just turn up and find something.

In Thatorn there are several restaurants that serve good food, I have tried them all and the food has been good in all of them. There are also a few noodle stalls in the street in the early evening and my favourite is a man who sells roti pancakes with various toppings very cheaply from a push cart. For birders requiring a very early breakfast coffee and toasted sandwiches can be found in the 7-11 store along with various breads (some of which are rather strange to say the least) and many other snacks. In the early morning there is also a fresh market, opposite 7-11 where some fresh fruit is available and a nearby pharmacy sells most things should you have any minor ailments.
For those that have forgotten to bring sufficient money along there are several ATM machines that accept foreign bank cards and even a branch of Bangkok Bank should you need it.

Thatorn Rice Fields and Riverside are not part of a national park and there is no charge to go birding at these locations. Please do remember that it is all privately owned land and behave accordingly.
 Some Useful Books
 Other Related Pages
Thatorn Bird Checklist

Birdwatching Tours

Other Northern Thailand Birding Locations

Air Pollution in Chiang Mai
 Photo Galleries
Select the thumbnail photos to see larger images.
thatorn-rice-fields
Rice Fields
sunset-thatorn
Sunset on the River
rice-fields-dusk
Rice Fields
haystack
Hay Stack
fang-sunset
Sunset
 

Bird Watching Trips:
Thatorn Rice Fields and Riverside are good spots to include on any northern itinerary, particularly between the months of October to April when interesting migrants can be present. This location combines very well with birding at nearby Doi Lang providing a good afternoon after a morning on the mountain.

Look at some itinerary ideas, Thailand bird tours, or contact me for information: nickupton@thaibirding.com.

 Trip Reports
Central & Northern Thailand, 1st-14th December 2015

Rainy Season Birding Tour of Thailand, 1st-14th July 2009


Tatorn, 23rd October 2001
  by Nick Upton

by Nick Upton

by Nick Upton
 Related Blog Entries
  • Northern Thailand - posted 20/02/17
  • Photographic Report From a Recent Trip: Northern Thailand - posted 22/12/16
  • Baikal Bush Warbler Abundance - posted 15/09/15
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