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The Mekong River In Ubon Ratchathani Province, 2nd-4th April 2013
 
  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.
Introduction
For some years I had been intrigued by a few sightings of the regionally endemic Mekong Wagtail made along the Mekong river in Ubon Ratchathani province in the far east of Thailand. I was not aware of more than a handful of sightings but when a new field guide to the birds of Thailand was published the range map for Mekong Wagtail showed it as resident for a whole stretch of the river in the lower northeast my interest became keener. I found myself with some free time in early April 2013 and heading in the general direction of Ubon Ratchathani so I decided to try and track down the bird for myself.

Phil Round helpfully pointed me in the direction of a town called Khemmarat where he knew that observations had been made, so that was my point of reference. Armed with this information and the knowledge that Phil had seen Great Thick-knee in this area a few years ago I set off towards Khemmarat to see if I could get myself into suitable habitat and find either bird.
Transport
I used a diesel Toyota Vigo pickup for this trip. While it would be possible to get any vehicle to the sites I visited, a couple of dirt tracks were a bit rutted and this economic vehicle can deal with potholes and dirt roads much better than a saloon car can.

Accommodation
As we did not know exactly where we would be staying we did not book any accommodation in advance, which did not matter at the time we visited, although we were told that the area got busy at weekends and public holidays. A variety of simple guesthouses were available in Chanuman, Khemmarat and along the river at Kaeng Pisamai/Had Wijitra, near Khong Chiam. New guesthouses were being built at both Chanuman and Kaeng Pisamai, both of which looked like they would be pleasant places to stay.
 
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Notes on Finding Birds
As all the sites visited were open in their nature, actually spotting birds was easy. However, due to the intense heat at the time of our visit, bird activity was almost zero after 10am until about 4.30pm making it essential to be out very early and until dusk.
Field Guides
1. A Field Guide to the Birds of South East Asia by Craig Robson
2. Birds of Thailand - Thai language field guide by various contributors
Birding Highlights

Kaeng Kun Sung: Mekong Wagtail

Kaeng Chang Mob: Mekong Wagtail, Small Pratincole, Wire-tailed Swallow, River Lapwing

Had Wijitra: Great Thick-knee, Mekong Wagtail, River Lapwing, Wire-tailed Swallow
Birding Diary

2nd April
We arrived in Khemmarat, in Ubon Ratchathani province, at about 2pm so I immediately tried to find the right rocky/sandy habitat in the river that might be home to the species I was searching for. Driving along the road that heads north to a town called Chanuman, after about 15 kms, I saw a sign, in English, pointing to an area of rapids in the river called "Kaeng Chang Mob". It was only 2 kilometres away so I drove down the road, into a small village, and after a couple of turns found myself overlooking a large area of sand dunes and rocks with patches of vegetation within the river Mekong. Much of the habitat here was quite close and some seemed accessible on foot due to the low water levels at this time of year, which is the end of the dry season.
Standing on the Thai bank of the river, looking out over the large area of habitat, I was wondering how I would get out there and what sort of effort would be needed to find the birds I was after - the answer was very little effort at all, as I spotted a Common Sandpiper chasing something that looked like a wagtail. As both species flew towards me I could see that one of them was definitely a black and white wagtail and when the bird finally landed I could see that it was indeed a Mekong Wagtail, the big, white supercilium was obvious, I did not think that it was going to be as easy as that!

Whilst I could be certain about the identification of the bird, the view I obtained was less than I had hoped for (only just "tickable") so I went back to the car to get my telescope. Of course, when I returned the bird was not to be refound easily. However, with the temperature far too high to go walking around on the huge area of habitat I decided to continue driving and see where else I could get down to the river and search for birds with the plan to return the following morning.
 
Kaeng Chang Mob
(Photo by Nick Upton)
About 7kms before reaching Chanuman a sign in Thai pointed towards Kaeng Hin Kun which was also marked on my map. About 1km down the side road I was at the bank of the Mekong but the river was very wide here and whilst there were plenty of sand bars and rocks, it was all too far away to be of much use. I took a look through my scope anyway and could see some very distant Small Pratincoles and decent numbers of Chinese Pond Herons and Little Egrets.

Moving on towards Chanuman I crossed the provincial boundary into Amnat Charoen province and saw another sign in Thai to Kaeng Kun Sung. About 1.5kms down a small side road I found myself in a small parking area where several groups of Thai tourists were hiring rubber tubes to play in the river. This spot was on the bank of a smaller channel of the river and the distances were much more manageable for birding so I took a quick look through my binoculars out the car window and instantly spotted a wagtail on some small rocks.
With this I got out of the car and set up my telescope and was able to watch a pair of Mekong Wagtails foraging along the shallows and on the rocks for around half an hour. The wagtails fed mostly in a similar fashion to other wagtails, picking at prey in between stones and just under water, but I also saw them hammering prey on rocks. During the half and hour that I watched the birds they did do a lot of tail wagging, but this could just be the behaviour on a particular day and not anything that is ecologically significant in the species.

This seemed to be a most unlikely spot to see what is one of Thailand's scarcest breeding birds; just a few small rocks in a river full of children playing on rubber rings, noisy boats passing by and guys in their underpants stalking fish!

Other species that I also saw here included Common Greenshank, Little Ringed Plover, Common Sandpiper, Green Sandpiper and Wire-tailed Swallow all of which went together to make for a nice late-afternoon stop.
 
Kaeng Kun Sung
(Photo by Nick Upton)
After this we went to Chanuman where I managed to find an acceptable place to stay and a restaurant. However, there was time to have a quick look for a Thick-knee on some sandy/muddy/rocky areas out the front of the guesthouse. Unfortunately, most of the area was too overgrown to spot a bird like this from the bank, but there was a track out into the area and it was fairly undisturbed and may have harboured a Thick-knee. Certainly there was more riverine habitat here and further upstream according to my map.
  Finding the birding sites between the towns of Khemmarat and Chanuman is quite easy. When heading towards Chanuman from Khemmarat take the first turning on the right, this will take you along a loop road which will rejoin the main road again later. About 15kms along the road there is an obvious blue, touristic sign for Kaeng Chang Mob in English which displays a picture of some fish. Follow this through a village until you are at the river.

The sites of Kaeng Hin Kun and Kaeng Kun Sung were only indicated by small wooden signs in Thai script. Both of these sites are accessible after rejoining the main road to Chanuman and were less than 1 kilometre off of the main road.

There was simple accommodation in both Khemmarat and Chanuman as well as one guesthouse between Khemmarat and Kaeng Chang Mob.
All the restaurants in Chanuman closed before 7pm but as Khemmarat is a bigger town food is probably available later here.
3rd April
I was out of bed at about 6.15am and took a look around the area around the guesthouse and the river front. I did not see anything particularly noteworthy but there were nice numbers of species including Yellow-vented Bulbul, Brown-throated Sunbird, Eastern Stonechat, Pied Bushchat, Green Bee-eater, Chestnut-capped Babbler and a few nesting Baya Weavers.

My next stop was Kaeng Hin Kun where the birds were still to far away to make much out of apart from about 50 Lesser Whistling Ducks, a few Black-winged Stilts, some Small Pratincoles and a couple of Great Egrets, Little Egrets and Chinese Pond Herons. However, we did manage to get a bowl of noodles for breakfast here!

Although I had obtained the best views of Mekong Wagtail at Kaeng Kun Sung, there did not seem to be the prospect of seeing very much more there as the area of habitat was small, so I decided to spend the rest of the morning exploring the huge area of rocks, sand, mud and vegetation at Kaeng Chang Mob a few kilometres back towards Khemmarat.
Parking was a bit of a struggle at Kaeng Chang Mob, but I squeezed the vehicle in out of the locals' way. Descending the river bank I could see a way out onto the rocks on my right and soon found myself away from everyone and everything - apart from birds that is which were quite abundant. On the sandy patches Small Pratincoles were nesting as were the odd Little Ringed Plover or two with Wire-tailed Swallows up and down the river. In the vegetation I saw Black-browed Reed Warbler, White-rumped Munia, Yellow-bellied Prinia, Oriental Reed Warbler and Pied Bushchat. I also heard the call of a Bright-headed Cisticola and then saw it fly away which was a bit of a surprise.

I kept scanning the rocks and sand for Great Thick-knee but the best I could do was Common Greenshank, Common Sandpiper and 1 River Lapwing. Whilst doing this I inadvertently strayed into an area close to a Small Pratincole nest and was mobbed by three birds. One of the pratincoles performed its fake injury display, flapping around strangely and trying to lead me away. After taking a few photographs I followed it, assuming that it would lead me safely away from making a further disturbance.

I continued exploring the riverine habitat but it began to get exceptionally hot and I had forgotten to take any water with me, besides, the chance of finding a bird such as Great Thick-knee, which is basically crepuscular, at 10.30am did not seem high so I headed back to the car. On the way back I saw a Pintail Snipe and a flock of White-rumped Munias but the air conditioning in the car was welcome!

Having had a pleasant morning's birding we decided to head further down the Mekong towards Pa Taem national park where there are some ancient cave paintings, close to the town of Khong Chiam. However, as we drove southwards we kept coming across other access points to the river Mekong and investigated some of them for suitable habitat. Most of these places seemed to consist mostly of rocks and due to the midday heat I did not spend much time looking for any birds as it would have taken a lot of effort. We did stop at the well-known Kaeng Sam Pan Bok where we were able to have lunch and look out over a vast area of exposed rocks - it would be a site worth investigating at a time of day when the heat is less intense.
 
  Birdwatching Trips In Thailand:
The dry season is a good time to visit the Mekong in Ubon Ratchathani province and a trip.
here can be combined with visiting other seldom-visited sites such as dry dipterocarp woodland at Pa Taem and wetlands in Burirum province.

Alternatively, if you are interested in visiting more frequently birded locations both the dry and wet seasons have a lot to offer.

Contact me to arrange a trip and/or to discuss the best birdwatching options for you: nickupton@thaibirding.com
 
We kept driving until almost reaching Pa Taem national park but I saw a sign to "Had Wijitra" a few kilometres before the park gate. "Had" is the Thai word for beach, so this indicated another place to access the river where there was sandy habitat. Following the road for about 3-4 kms we followed another sign for the beach and found ourselves in the car park of a guesthouse where we could park and overlook the river, beach and more rocky outcrops. It was still a bit early in the afternoon for birding and decided to look around a bit more and found another guesthouse back downstream that was more to our liking; we checked in there. This guesthouse overlooked another large area of rocks, known as Kaeng Pisamai. From around 4-5pm I explored this area. It started off well with a River Lapwing and some Little Ringed Plovers plus lots of Wire-tailed Swallows which were nesting in the rock formations but a lot of climbing and sweating produced very few birds indeed. Deciding that the sandy habitat at Had Wijitra looked better we drove the few kilometres back there.

We descended to the beach and slowly walked upstream along it, onto some dunes. Very quickly I heard a wagtail and soon spotted a pair of Mekong Wagtails perched on some small rocks not far away. As I was watching these, a third bird attacked them but was chased off by the pair! We walked perhaps half a kilometre upstream, perhaps not even that and I started scanning the rocks and sand on the Laos side of the river; the time was about 5.30pm. I spotted a couple of River Lapwings then some giant shorebird running around on the rocks - a Great Thick-knee!!!!! Even though I was hoping to find this species, which is now very rare in South East Asia, I was still surprised to actually see one. We were quite far away so we walked a few hundred metres closer and obtained really nice 'scope views. Both my wife and I enjoyed looking at this bird but imagine my surprise when two more Great Thick-knees chased the first bird away to the Thai side of the river; now I could put Great Thick-knee on my Thai list without feeling a fraud.

We watched the Great Thick-knees until sunset and returned to the guesthouse for dinner.
  Both Had Wijitra and Kaeng Pisamai were easy to find. Pa Taem national park was signposted from road 2112 from Khemmarat to Khong Chiam and about a kilometre along the road to the park was another sign in English and Thai to Had Wijitra. Both Kaeng Pisamai and Had Wijitra were signposted along the road although both were best accessed through the grounds of two guesthouses

Kaeng Pisamai can be accessed in the dry season by crossing a bamboo bridge and Had Wijitra is accessed by some steps cut into the soil bank.

There were several guesthouses along the river here as well as some other places to stay in the town of Khong Chiam. A new and pleasant-looking guesthouse was in the process of being built when we were there.
4th April
This morning we decided to go for a boat trip along the river. Leaving at 7.30am we headed upstream in a narrow, long-tail boat with a canopy to protect us from the sun. The boat was going too fast really for birding, but having seen the target species already I was happy just to enjoy the ride and look at the scenery.
Along the way there were several places where groups of River Lapwings were hiding and I probably saw about twenty during the course of the morning as we cruised along the river. We were heading to a spot called Kaeng Gao Pan Bok which turned out to be another area of rocks and sand and it looked like a possible site for Thick-knees and other interesting birds but by the time we got there it was too late and too hot. However, the views along the river were very nice and the rock formations were quite interesting.

I did see a few species on the boat ride that I had not seen before along the river, including Grey Heron, Little Heron, two Blue Rock Thrushes and a soaring Osprey but no more Mekong Wagtails, although I am sure if we had been traveling more slowly we would have found some given that I had seen three at Had Wijitra.

After the boat trip we decided to begin heading back to Bangkok as it is a very long drive but I wanted to check out the area known as Two Colours River" where the Mun river joins the Mekong. We found an access point just outside the town of Khong Chiam and there were masses of suitable habitat for Mekong Wagtail but as we had a long journey ahead of us and getting closer required a bit of a walk in the heat of the day we decided to move along.

As we made our way back to Ubon Ratchathani city we made a quick stop at the Pak Mun Dam, which has been the centre of controversy for some years. Stopping on the dam to try and get a look down the river I could see yet more interesting riverine habitat and to my surprise a female Mekong Wagtail was perched on a part of the machinery that raises and closes the dam's gates.
 
Mekong Wagtail
 
Summary
One of the things I was concerned about before heading to the Mekong river in Ubon Ratchathani province was that it would be difficult to get to any suitable habitat to find both Mekong Wagtail and Great Thick-knee, however, it is fact easy to find many access spots to the river and excellent habitat, at least in the dry season.

There was little information available as to how abundant Mekong Wagtail would be in Thailand and the low number of sightings would imply that it was a rare bird. However, the fact that I found a total of nine birds at four separate locations would indicate that I was either extremely lucky or that the species is actually far more common in this region than previously realized and the low number of sightings is down to the fact that few birders make the journey out to this part of Thailand. Given that there is a lot of suitable habitat and that i found 3 Great Thick-knees with very little effort, I suspect that this species is perhaps easier to find than may have been previously thought too and that if other birders visit the region they would have a good chance of finding both birds.
Nick Upton (nickupton@thaibirding.com)
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 Species list with notes
Chanuman: Ch
Kaeng Kun Sung: KKS
Kaeng Hin Kun: KHK
Kaeng Chang Mob: KCM
Kaeng Sam Pan Bok: KSPB
Kaeng Pisamai: KPS
Had Wijitra: HW
Kaeng Gao Pan Bok: KGPB
Two Colours River: TCR
Pak Mun Dam: PMD

1. Lesser Whistling Duck: 30+ at KHK.
2. Coppersmith Barbet: 1 at Ch.
3. Indian Roller: A few at Ch.
4. White-throated Kingfisher: 1 at KHK.
5. Green Bee-eater :A few at Ch.
6. Blue-tailed Bee-eater: 1 at KCM.
7. Chestnut-headed Bee-eater: 1 at KPS.
8. Green-billed Malkoha: 1 at Ch.
9. Asian Koel: 1 at Ch & 1 at KCM.
10. Greater Coucal: A few at Ch & KCM.
11. Asian Palm Swift: Everywhere.
12. House Swift :2 at KPS, 10 at KGPB & 1 at TCR.
13. Feral Pigeon
14. Spotted Dove: A few at KCM, KHK, KCM & HW.
15. Red Collared Dove: A few at Ch.
16. Peaceful Dove :A few at Ch & TCR.
17. White-brested Waterhen: 1 at KCM.
18. Pintail Snipe: 1 at KCM & 2 at KPS.
19. Common Greenshank: A few at Ch, KKS, KHK, KCM, KGPB.
20. Green Sandpiper: 2 at KKS & 1 at KCM.
21. Common Sandpiper : A few at Ch, KHK, KCM, KPS, HW, KGPB & PMD.
22. Great Thick-knee: 3 at HW.
23. Black-winged Stilt: A few at Ch, KHK, KCM, KPS, KGPB, TCR.
24. Small Pratincole: About 30 at KHK & about 20 at KCM.
25. Little Ringed Plover : Seen at all sites.
26. River Lapwing :1 at KCM, 3 at KPS, 3 at HW & a20 at KGPB.
27. Black-shouldered Kite: 1 at Ch.
28. Brahminy Kite: 1 at KPS.
29. Osprey:1 at KGPB.
30. Little Egret: All sites.
31. Eastern Great Egret: A few at KHK & KGPB.
32. Eastern Cattle Egret: A few at HW.
33. Grey Heron:1 at KPS.
34. Chinese Pond Heron: All sites.
35. Little Heron:1 at KGPB.
36. Brown Shrike: 1 at Ch.
37. Eastern Jungle Crow: A few at Ch, KHK & KCM.
38. Black-naped Oriole: 1 at KSPB.

39. Ashy Minivet: A few at KPS.
40. Ashy Drongo: 1 at KHK.
41. Black Drongo: A few at KCM.
42. Common Iora: 2 at KHK & 2 at KCM.
43. Blue Rock Thrush: 2 at KGPB.
44. Oriental Magpie Robin: A few sites.
45. Eastern Stonechat: 1f at Ch.
46. Pied Bushchat: A few at Ch, KCM, KSPB, KPS, HW, KGPB & TCR.
47. Common Myna: At a few sites.
48. White-vented Myna: At a few sites.
49. Ashy Woodswallow: A few at Ch.
50. Striated Swallow: About 8 at Ch & a few at KPS.
51. Barn Swallow: A few at all locations.
52. Wire-tailed Swallow: At all sites.
53. Sooty-headed Bulbul: A few at Ch & KCM.
54. Yellow-vented Bulbul: Ch, KCM, KHK & KSPB.
55. Streak-eared Bulbul: Common at Ch.
56. Grey-breasted Prinia: A few at KCM.
57. Yellow-bellied Prinia: 2 at KCM.
58. Bright-headed Cisticola: 1 at KCM.
59. Black-browed Reed Warbler: 1 at KCM.
60. Oriental Reed Warbler: 1 at KCM.
61. Common Tailorbird: A few at Ch & KCM.
62. Dark-necked Tailorbird: 1 at Ch.
63. Dusky Warbler: 1 at KCM.
64. Chestnut-capped Babbler: 2 at Ch.
65. Indochinese Bushlark: 2 at Ch & 1 at KHK.
66. Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker: 1m at Ch.
67. Brown-throated Sunbird: 2 at Ch, 1 at KHK, 1 at KSPB.
68. Little Spiderhunter: 1 at KH.
69. Mekong Wagtail: 2 at KKS, 3 at KCM, 3 at HW & 1 at PMD.
70. Yellow Wagtail: 1 at KCM.
71. House Sparrow: A few at Ch.
72. Plain-backed Sparrow: Many at KCM.
73. Eurasian Tree Sparrow: A few at Ch, KHK, KPS.
74. Baya Weaver: About 20 at Ch.
75. White-rumped Munia: About 5 at KCM.
76. Scaly-breasted Munia: A few at KCM & KPS.

Nick Upton can be contacted at nickupton@thaibirding.com
If you are interested in arranging a bird watching tour you can see some suggested itineraries here - Birdwatching Trips - and you can contact me at the above email address to discuss the best options.
 Photos from the trip
Select the thumbnail photos to see larger images.
kaeng-kun-sung2
Playing at Kaeng Kun Sung
kaeng-kun-sung3
Fishing at Kaeng Kun Sung
chanuman
Sunrise at Chanuman
kaeng-chang-mob2
Kaeng Chang Mob
kaeng-chang-mob3
Kaeng Chang Mob
kaeng-pisamai
Bridge to Kaeng Pisamai
had-wijitra2
Had Wijitra at dusk
had-wijitra3
Sunset at Had Wijitra
kaeng-gao-pan-bok
Rock formation, Kaeng Gao Pan Bok
pak-mun-dam
Pak Mun Dam

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