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Doi Pha Hom Pok & Chiang Saen Lake, 17-19th February 2005
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Ever since last season I have been longing to set my sails towards this the 2nd highest (2200 some m) and Northern most mountain of Thailand. Time constraints and the must for a 4-wheel drive has always been the main blockage for going up there. With the events of Tsunami our normal schedule was ‘tossed around’ and it looked like I’d miss it again. Finally an opening in the schedule arrived and I booked a ticket with Airasia which is a low budget airline making it easy to get around in the region.

I found a small car hire company that didn’t require a credit card and had them bring a Suzuki Caribbean to the airport. I drove strait North, passed Doi Chiang Dao and towards Fang. There is a by pass to the left of this town and in the middle of the by pass is a sign to Mae Fang National Park. Turn left here and turn right after 100 meters (poor sign post), follow the road for another 6-7 kilometer and you will arrive at the National Park where you will need to pick up keys for the gates up the mountain as well as pay your camping fee.

I followed the instructions given me by the park rangers and started on my way up. Had to get back to the drive pass, turn left and go on for another kilometer or so, then turn left towards Bor Baan (a pond). I stopped for a moment at this crossing and took note of the birds around: Scaly-breasted Munia, Brown Shrike, Baya Weaver, Plain-backed Sparrow, Grey-breasted Prinia, Plain Prinia, Grey Wagtail and Ashy Woodswallow on some wires. The drive up took at least 1 1/2 hours on a bumpy dirt road. I took notice of the birdlife around the first gate and saw Brown-cheeked Fulvettas, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Greater Coucal, Sooty-headed Bulbul and an Ashy Drongo. Once you get passed the watershed station the road soon divides. Take a right and you will get to what is commonly called the A-frames on the Eastern side, take a left and you will get to Geo Lom which is the park’s official campground.

I had heard that birding would be better at the A-frames (greater diversity of habitats) but decided to visit Geo Lom. My target birds for the trip were Black-throated Tits and Whiskered Yuhinas. Both birds are resident here but not found on for instance Doi Angkhang or Doi Inthanon.

Campground was nicely landscaped and neatly kept with a new visitor centre. Camping gear was available if needed. I arrived at the camping ground at 2 pm and immediately set out to discover the surroundings. From Geo Lom towards the summit is a 3.5 km long trail following the mountain ridge. The trail mainly ascends and can be quite strenuous. It passes some grassland at first but quickly leads onwards through some fine montane forest. I saw a Brown-breasted Bulbul on my way up.

First birds to greet me at the campground were a pair of Yellow-cheeked Tits and. I never get tired of these nice looking birds with their lovely song. The mandatory Bulbul of mountains in Thailand, Flavescent Bulbul was next. Several Olive-backed Pipits took to the trees as I walked by. I started on the trail passing an open rather steep slant, once inside the forest an uncommon Black-throated Shrike Babbler appeared in the broadleaf forest. A flock of Mountain Bulbuls, Dark-backed Sibias (awfully similar looking to Jerdon’s Bushchat) and Grey-headed Flycatcher followed suit. Little Pied Flycatchers along with Grey-chinned Fulvettas were some of the most common birds in the forest. Grey Bushchats were not hard to come around either. On my first walk I encountered White-browed Shrike Babbler, Mrs. Gould’s Sunbird and Large Cuckooshrike before I found my first pair of Black-throated Tits. Not good views but never the less, a tick. Then in an opening, while resting my weary body against a fallen log, my first Whiskered Yuhina. That nuchular collar along with its crest makes it quite special looking and appealing. A single Crested Finchbill showed well and I wished I had brought the scope along for some digiscoping.

That night I slept in my newly purchased one-man tent with only the stars as a companion.

The morning began with a Blue Whistling Thrush hopping along. I tried walking back down the road which had produced some Lesser Rufous-headed Parrotbills and a Long-tailed Thrush the week earlier, but soon realized I better get on with my planned walk to the summit and beyond. (Only a few days earlier no less then 8 Cutias had been seen courting at a given spot and I had decided to give it a try). However, a Daurian Redstart kept showing and so did a Grey-faced Buzzard, which co-operated well with my photographic ambitions.

This time I brought along the scope and tripod. My oh my, it was a heavy climb.

As it was, I hardly got to use the scope but without it I wouldn’t have gotten a picture of the Crested Finchbill. A Large Niltava perched obligingly on a branch whilst a Scaly Thrush popped up on a lower limb. A Red-faced Liochicla called for attention and Spectacled Barwings kept singing from within the forest cover. A female Mountain Bamboo Partridge was feeding next to the forest under storey and quickly went in hiding as it became aware of my presence. This time I got to see a flock of at least half a dozen Black-throated Tits at close range. It felt good to see them so well after having ‘craved’ these birds for so long. The Whiskered Yuhinas showed a few times each time equally interesting. Slaty-bellied Tesia and Mountain Tailorbirds were heard calling but not seen. Same with Great and Golden-throated Barbets. A Blue-winged Minla briefly appeared next to a Crested Finchbill.

As I got higher several Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrushes started showing. They appear to be only tame on the summit of Doi Inthanon and always skulky elsewhere. Then in the middle of the Laughingthrushes the surprise of my trip: a Grey-winged Blackbird!

The higher grounds held several Snowy-browed Flycatchers and Rufous-winged Fulvettas. Yellow-bellied Fantails were not uncommon either. An Orange-flanked Bush Robin added to the ambiance, as did several Bulbul species such as Black-crested, Ashy, Mountain and Striated.

I walked down the top for a kilometer and a half towards the A-frames. This is where the Cutias had been seen recently. My endeavor didn’t work out very well but atleast I got some much needed exercise. I rested under a fruiting fig tree in hope of Chestnut Thrush but had to settle with a single female Siberian Thrush. I kept going back and fro between this tree and the Cutia site and both heard and saw a Bay Woodpecker on one of these walks. Suddenly, a Mountain Hawk Eagle perched nearby but as I reached for my scope it flew away. On the way back I watched a Peregrine Falcon in flight at the summit. Several Buzzards (4) were soaring over the forest, not sure if they were Common or Grey-faced.

I decided that the mountain had given me enough for my ‘moneys worth’ and so walked back to the campground as briskly as I could. Saw some Striated Yuhinas along the way as well as Long-tailed Shrike at the campground. There were different Leaf Warblers around and by far the White-tailed Leaf Warbler was the most abundant.

I still had one night left before my plane back to Bangkok would leave from Chiang Mai on the day following. I knew of several ducks being present at Chiang Saen Lake at Chiang Rai and the possibility of some ‘easy tick’s’ was simply too tempting. (Other possible birds and ticks for me would be Crimson-breasted Woodpecker, Red-tailed and Spot-breasted Laughingthrush, Cutia, Lesser Rufous Parrobill and Scarlet Finch but I will have to be back for those on another occasion.)

Going down the mountain still took about an hour. I had to bring the keys back to the headquarters and then started my drive to the town of Mae Chan where I checked in at Mae Rim resort. This resort is really worth its money. Lanna style type of rooms of high standard for only 15$/night. My achy body eagerly welcomed the warm shower and generous sized bed and after a simple meal of Thai food and beverages I drifted off into a deep sleep.

The following morning was a bit cool so I put on a sweater and kept the air conditioning in the car down. As usual there were no rafts of ducks in the main part of the lake. I didn’t really bother to check out the reeds and surrounding vegetation but went to the visitor centre looking for Mr. Boonpop who is the only ranger with a real know how of the birds in the area. He wasn’t in at the time so I proceeded on my own. I shortly bumped into David Bishop who was in the area with an elderly couple from the US. I invited them into my car as their passenger van surely would have a hard time on the bumpy roads surrounding the lake. I then drove off to the opposite side of the lake where one have to drive through some orchards to get back to the lake and where the ducks normally hang around. We found lots of birds and I was able to pick up several lifers. Ducks are not easy in Thailand. We didn’t see any Baer’s Ducks but still found a big variety;Tufted Duck, Spot-billed Duck, Common Teal, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Garganey, Gadwall, Ferruginous Pochard, Lesser Whistling Ducks, Little Grebe.

The only bird on the main part of the lake was a pair of Great Crested Grebes. New for me in Thailand.

Along the way around the lake we had some excellent and very rare views of a female Chinese Francolin out in the open on the graveled road. Striated Grassbird, the worlds largest Warbler they say, is a sure bird around the lake. Its beautiful song is far reaching.

After having said goodbye to David and companions I went to check out a fish pond where reportedly 3 Pied Avocets were seen. I was not to be disappointed, got my birds which were lifers for me.

I then started the long drive back to Chiang Mai where I returned the car and boarded the plane back to Bangkok. Two nights in the North had given me 8 lifers and some good time birding that will be hard to forget.

Peter Ericsson
Peter Ericsson can be contacted at
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