Mekong River In Ubon Ratchathani Province, 2nd-4th April 2013
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:
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.
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
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.
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.
Kaeng Chang Mob: Mekong Wagtail, Small Pratincole,
Wire-tailed Swallow, River Lapwing
Had Wijitra: Great Thick-knee, Mekong Wagtail, River
Lapwing, Wire-tailed Swallow
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
There was simple accommodation in both Khemmarat and Chanuman
as well as one guesthouse between Khemmarat and Kaeng
the restaurants in Chanuman closed before 7pm but as Khemmarat
is a bigger town food is probably available later here.
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.
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.
Trips In Thailand:
dry season is a good time to visit the Mekong
in Ubon Ratchathani province and a trip.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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 three 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.
Kaeng Kun Sung: KKS
Kaeng Hin Kun: KHK
Kaeng Chang Mob: KCM
Kaeng Sam Pan Bok: KSPB
Had Wijitra: HW
Kaeng Gao Pan Bok: KGPB
Two Colours River: TCR
Pak Mun Dam: PMD
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. Stejneger's 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.
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.