by Nick Upton
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Ko Phi Phi Marine National Park, 24th Mar 2003
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As my girlfriend and I were staying at Ko Phi Phi for a relaxing few days, I felt it would be rude not to go and look for frigatebirds near the sea stack beyond Phi Phi Ley where they had been reported in the past. Plenty of boatmen hang around the main pier area waiting to be hired for day trips, and my tactic was to wander around asking them if they knew of Nok Jon Sa-Lat (Thai for frigatebird, click here to see script for printing). I was fortunate to find a boatmen who clearly knew where to see them, naming the sea stack where they congregate; he also told us that it was best to go and see them an hour or two before dusk. I trusted in his judgement and at 600 baht for as long as we liked the price seemed pretty good too.

At about 4pm we found our boatman and off we went towards Ko Phi Phi Ley in our longtail boat. Very soon we were able to spot Black-naped Terns resting on rocks around the islands with Brahminy Kites and a White-bellied Sea Eagle soaring overhead. Our boatman was a real old sea-lover, singing Thai sea shanties as we went; very impressively he spotted a very distant group of frigatebirds and off we went towards them. It was difficult to view them properly at a distance on an unstable boat but I was able to identify them as Lesser Frigatebirds with some difficulty. We were taken towards the distant sea stack and chased small parties of frigatebirds around, trying to get a better view, whilst doing this a single Bridled Tern flew past. The boatman told us that it would be easier to see the frigatebirds closer to dusk and that we should wait in one of the concealed beaches on Phi Phi Ley. As the sea was getting a little choppy and I was becoming a little green, I was happy to rest on dry land for a while.

The bay we rested in was a very beautiful hidden cove with huge cliffs and crystal-clear water, a very sceneic place; and at 5 pm completely free from other tourists! More importantly for the birdwatcher this bay was the haunt of a number of Black-nest Swiftlets, a Blue Rock Thrush, a Collared Kingfisher and several Pied Imperial Pigeons coming in to roost.

Resuming at around 5.45, our boatman said that the frigatebirds would be gathering, so out to sea we went again; before very long a distant hoard of birds were spotted and we went after them. This time the birds were happy for us to get really close, and they circled around above our heads, our boatman following them wherever they went. As time wore on the number of birds grew to an amazing number, at least 1000 to 1500, with them circling around us to as low as a few metres above our heads when their huge size could be appreciated. Out of the clouds of Lesser Frigatebirds I picked out at least 50 to 100 Christmas Island Frigatebirds, but try as I might I could not confidently identify any Greater Frigatebirds. With the engine turned off we bobbed around watching this spectacle as the sun set.

As it was getting dark, I decided it was time to go back, particularly as we seemed to have drifted some way out into the ocean: our boatman seemed happy to stay there all night!. We chugged along in the fading light back towards Phi Phi Ley when the engine cut out: the chain had fallen off! I said to my girlfriend that it was lucky that it did not fall into the sea or we could have been in trouble; both she and the boatman laughed at my stupidity!!!!! After taking around 10 minutes to fix the engine off we went again, this time with a wailing sound from the engine to accompany us and only managing a crawling speed through the water. Then the chain flew off again, this time into the sea. "Never mind", I said, "he will put on the spare"...................... Whilst our captain tried to fix the engine with a piece of string the wind had increased, blowing us quickly towards the rocky cliffs of the island where, it was pointed out to me, were a group of roosting Black-naped Terns. I would not have cared for them any more had they been Dodos, being more concerned with being capsized or smashed into splinters on the rocks. After persistently asking the captain to summon help I was told that the battery of his mobile phone was dead, anyway he wasn't bothered, he just stood dancing on the roof and somehow called the only other boat around by yelling at it, quite impressive as it was about 1 kilometre away. Finally this longtail boat arrived, fixed up a tow-line and towed us all the way back to Phi Phi Don. By this time it was all quite amusing and I gave the boatman a decent tip for providing such a memorable trip!

Nick Upton
 Birds seen around Ko Phi Phi
Christmas Island Frigatebird
Lesser Frigatebird
Cattle Egret
Pacific Reef Egret
Brahminy Kite
White Bellied Sea Eagle
Lesser Crested Tern
Roseate Tern
Black Naped Tern
Little Tern
Bridled Tern
Pied Imperial Pigeon
Collared Kingfisher
Black Nest Swiftlet
Blue Rock Thrush
Common Myna
Tree Sparrow
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