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Thailand (with short notes on Laos), 23 Dec 2006 – 7 Jan 2007
 
 
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Note: This trip report has been reproduced with the kind permission of Bjorn Anderson and originally appeared on http://www.club300.se
Introduction
This was a combined family holiday and birding trip. We started off with a few days of general sightseeing around Luang Prabang in Laos before travelling south to well-known Khao Lak in peninsular Thailand. From there I made one half-day birding venture to Khao Sok National Park as well as the pilgrimage trip to Similan Island for the long-awaited Nicobar Pigeon. At the end of the trip I stayed on for a few more extra days and went to Khao Yai in order to pick up a few so-far missed birds. This proved highly successful and I managed to see the targeted Coral-billed Ground-Cuckoo, Siamese Fireback, Eared Pitta as well as an incredibly nice sighting of Oriental Bay-Owl. In addition to these I also encountered goodies such as Blue Pitta, Scaly-breasted Partridge and a selection of hornbills, barbets, etc.

Itinerary
23/12/06 - We left Beijing in the early evening and arrived at Bangkok around 22.00 local time and quickly transferred to a nearby hotel.

24/12/06 - In the morning we took a short range flight from Bangkok to Luang Prabang in Lao’s People Democratic Republic. At the local airport we swiftly arrange an open-air taxi that took us to our pre-booked hotel near the centre of town. Town is actually a bit of an exaggeration as it turned out that is was possible to walk all around the centre in less than an hour. This however suited us perfectly and we thoroughly enjoyed the restaurants, cafes and small shops. Especially the restaurants along the Mekong river were perfectly set for a dinner at sunset. The fusion of French and Asian food was apparent and made for good quality and taste.

 
Bjorn and Siamese Fireback

25/12/06 - We left Luang Prabang at 8.00 in the morning with a slow-boat up-river the Mekong. The air was rather cool and a mist was covering the river and valleys. After 2 hours and 25 km we reached the Pak Ou cave that was the destination of the day. A couple of limestone caves filled with hundreds of Buddha statues. Along the way we also visited four riverside villages in order to have lunch, stretch our legs as well as playing along with the dude tourist herds. By 16.00 we were back in Luang Prabang and strolled along the riverfront until dusk when we had a Laotian BBQ. The day had been almost completely birdless, and in spite of traveling along seemingly decent secondary habbo next to the river, there were just NO birds heard nor seen. Not even the looked-for White-eyed River-Martin showed up ;-) The avifauna was even more impoverished than the Chinese countryside, which says a lot.

26/12/06 - The entire day was spent doing next to nothing in Luang Prabang, enjoying the cafes and good food.

27/12/06 - This day we went for a trekk in the hills about half an hour’s drive from Luang Prabang. Most of the walk was through secondary scrub and the only larger trees were along the river. Some common birds showed their presence, but nothing to race my heart.

28/12/06 - After spending the first half of the day in Luang Prabang, we took the afternoon flight to Bangkok for another connection to Phuket. In the late evening we arrived our hotel in Khao Lak.

29/12/06 - A lazy day by the poolside and at the beach.

30/12/06 - Yet another lazy day…

31/12/06 - Today I was finally in for some birding again. At 5.00 I left the hotel for a one hour drive to Khao Sok National Park to the northeast of Khao Lak. I birded this area until lunchtime, when I returned to Khao Lak for some New Year celebration preparations.

01/01/07 - We were starting the new year with …. yes, that’s right: another lazy day.

02/01/07 - And yet another one of those days…

03/01/07 - The last day in the south and eventually it was time to chip in one of the target birds: Nicobar Pigeon. When we were in the area 14 years ago, we were not able to go to Similan Islands because of lack of boats. This time I was determined to go and arranged a boat to Island No 4. We left at 7.00 from the jetty and soon hit the choppy sea. After 1.5 hours of bumpy boat-ride we finally set foot on the island and I dashed off to the campground and found a big fat Nicko Pig walking around in the grass. In all honesty it was a bit Attenboroughish to see this relatively tricky species with such ease. While I was photographing it, my wife came to get me, as my boys had found some more Pigeons near the boat-landing beach. How easy can it get? Nevertheless, when I made another search in the same areas at midday, I did not find a sniff of them. Instead I found a photogenic Slaty-breasted Rail. After having enjoyed the beach-life and done some snorkeling, we returned to the mainland. This time the waves were a lot gentler due to our cruising direction, something that was much appreciated by at least on of my sons.


Nicobar Pigeon
(Photo by Bjorn Anderson)

04/01/07 - In the early morning we left the hotel at Khao Lak for a morning flight from Phuket to Bangkok. The family continued to Beijing, while I went to Khao Yai National Park instead. The plan was to find a few remaining target birds that I missed at my last visit 14 years ago. Being short of time I opted for hiring the local guide Nang to arrange for transportation and logistics and also guiding. After arrival at BKK airport, we were soon on our way to an area called Ban Bu Ton Road to look for Asian Golden Weaver. In the breeding season they should be straightforward to find, but at this time of the year they seem to be spread out and in spite of searching in three areas, we eventually gave up and continued to Khao Yai arriving about 15.30. We immediately checked out a few sites where the star bird Coral-billed Ground-Cuckoo can be seen, but it never showed. Before dusk we also walked a few hundred meters on trail 6 and briefly saw a probable Eared Pitta fly across. In the evening we did some nocturnal birding and saw a small party of Gaur. The evening show was topped by an incredible Oriental Bay-Owl. After hearing two calling rather distantly in the forest, we walked in and finally had stunning views of one bird at close range doing its typical vertical trunk-hugging posture. Pure magic!

05/01/07 - We left Khao Yai early and drove for 1.5 hours to Sakaerat Biosphere Reserve, where we arrived at the crack of dawn. The purpose for this side-trip was to watch Siamese Fireback that is especially confiding in this seldom-visited reserve. It did not take us long until we had found our target and we were soon surrounded by sometimes as many as seven male Firebacks displaying a point blank distance. This was almost unbelievable and some of the most amazing pheasant experiences I’ve ever had. After enjoying these birds for an eternity, we finally left them in peace, because we had another target in mind. White-rumped Falcon has eluded me at several places in SE Asia and we therefore decided to have a try at nearby Sap Sudao National Park. Luck was not with me and we searched diligently for the entire day without and positive result. At dusk we returned to Khao Yai.

06/01/07 - This was the day for CBGC and in the very early morning I was positioned at a small garbage dump where it is sometimes seen. Nothing happened though and I had to go back to the usual camp-site. Within minutes after arriving, I learned that one was being seen behind the restaurant, which was not exactly where I was positioned. After an adrenalin-kicked rush to the restaurant I slowly sneaked up next to Nang who pointed out the Junglefowl which the CBGC was feeding together with. Another birder asked us what the large black-headed bird was that he was seeing. This birder stood next to me, but in spite of this I could not see it. This was frustration per definition! We then spent considerable time keeping track of the gully where the birds were supposed to be. It was however until ten o’clock when I was sitting alone behind the restaurant that I saw a large slow-moving bird with a pale grey back behind a large root-system. Sadly it disappeared as only forest birds can, and nothing more was seen. I sat and waited for another half hour when suddenly a CBGC decided to walk right out in the open in front of me! It was so close so that I could not raise my bins without flushing it. It just stood there for probably more than half a minute, judging whether I was a threat or not. We were both absolutely still until “the boy’s” brain started to spin and it panicked, turned around and disappeared with the speed of light. I had nothing to complain about though and more than satisfied I started to work on a strategy to find an Eared Pitta. I decided to walk up through the scrubby forest behind the small dam. This trail leads uphill and after about a km a trail to the right leads down to trail 6. Just where the shortcut trail connected to trail 6, I heard an Eared Pitta calling a couple of times, but too far away to be able to be located. I then slowly walked trail 6 back to the restaurant and had a nice encounter of a pair of Scaly-breasted Partridges. At the restaurant I recharged with a late lunch before moving back out on trail 6 again. When I was back the previously mentioned shortcut junction, which is where there is an exceptionally large tree with a giant root system, I heard some typical Pitta-leaftossing behind a large fallen trunk. Soon afterwards a female Eared Pitta was seen hopping away from me and disappearing behind a tree. It then just disappeared and in spite of extensive waiting and searching I could not find her or her mate again. Nevertheless, it was a most satisfying event after having heard the species several times before. On the way back I also stumbled upon a nice Blue Pitta.

07/01/07 - I left Khao Yai National Park at 5.30 for a 1h15 drive to revisit Ban Bu Ton Road in a final attempt to look for Asian Golden Weaver. In 1.5 hours I did not see a single Weaver, so presumably they are off somewhere else at this time of the year. From Ban Bu Ton Road it was another hour to the airport.

Weather
Thailand in the winter means pleasant weather by definition. No complaints whatsoever; Thailand Weather.

Logistics
All flights and hotels were pre-booked as we thought it was a good idea due to the peak season. Even though I had been to Khao Yai once before, I decided to hire a guide to help me find my target birds. This proved highly successful as I could enjoy some normally not visited areas like Sakaerat and Sap Sudao. The guide is named Nang and is a really good birding guide with extensive experience from guiding and birding in Khao Yai and to some extent also elsewhere in Thailand. She arranged all transportation to and from the airport, hotel and food. Nang can be contacted at nangguide@gmail.com or nang@thailandyourway.com.

Khao Sok National Park
I visited this national park during some morning hours without having any previous information at all. The park is only about one hour drive from Khao Lak and is therefore a good alternative for chipping in some decent birding during a family holiday. The park has essentially two trails leading from the HQ, where the entrance fee of 400 THB is paid. I arrived just before first light and the ticket office was open by then and they can provide maps of the area. I opted for the trail leading 7 km to Ton Cloy waterfall, which is a sort of jeep-track for the initial 2 km to a small visitor center selling drinks. Thereafter it is a narrow forest trail, which I only walked about 2 km in altogether. The forest is quite decent and looked primary on at least one side in the beginning and all over beyond the visitor center. From the HQ there is another trail leading to somewhere, which I never tried. I later learned that this would be better off for birding. At the HQ there are some large trees that were fruiting and thus held lots of bulbuls and flowerpeckers. Some of the local guides had seen one of my target birds, Scaly-breasted Bulbul earlier in the morning and also claimed that White-crowned Hornbill is sometimes seen; more on Khao Sok National Park.

Similan Islands
Similan Islands are a series of small islands to the west of Khao Lak. It is by divers regarded as a top-ten diving site and there are lots of boats going there every day. However, most (all?) of these boats are focused on snorkeling and diving and thus spend very little time on the key island (number 4) and furthermore only land there briefly in the afternoon when the chances for the Pigeons are seriously reduced. If time is no constraint, an overnight visit is probably highly recommended and should pose no problems as there are many multi day package trips. In order to maximize my chances of seeing the Pigeon, we chartered a speedboat and went straight to island No 4. The process of arranging the boat included some high level negotiation expertise with several tour agents in Khao Lak. Another option could be to just show up at the jetty and take it from there. Anyway, a site well worth visiting both for the Nicobar Pigeons and also for the snorkeling. I e.g. saw my first sea-snake ever; more on Similan Islands.

Bjorn Anderson

 
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