Ugh. Woke up even earlier than the alarm (0400), and so we were well set to leave by just after 0600. The familiar rapid run in the dark to Heathrow, and into the bowels of Terminal 3 for over three hours of sitting about, eating and being bored in a crowd.
Nine and a bit hours of flying with Thai Airways was less than we’d been led to believe, and we both managed to snatch a little sleep – but not much.
Arrival was easy, and we were quickly met by our Avis rep and driven a short distance offsite to the office. Car fine – a Toyota Vios with AC and a boot, so plenty of room. The driving was not too bad at all – on the left! – and the sat nav with an Aussie voice worked quite well. Bangkok outskirts successfully negotiated, and in a remarkably speedy three hours (including a brief stop for coffee at the roadside – with Black-capped Kingfisher and a few waders thrown in) we had reached Kaeng Krachen, and the sat nav app on the phone especially was astonishingly good, getting us to the gate of Baanmaka from just a latitude and longitude off Google Earth.
A bit of a wander very locally for a few species (no doubt common!), and a bit of a rest and a shower, before lunch, accompanied by a Racket-tailed Magpie and two Greater Necklaced Laughing-Thrushes. And then a proper hour’s sleep!
Once up, we explored the garden a little, (our host Tom showed us a superb Oriental Whip Snake) and then went out for a recce up to the campsite in the National Park – not a great deal happening, with the highlights being three Great Hornbills, some Ashy Woodswallows and brief Radde’s and Greenish Warblers. Elephant dung was quite inspiring, mind you. Really tired, we returned to the camp for dusk, and fluked a juvenile Yellow Bittern down by the lake. More food – dog tired.....bed.
Inevitably, we both woke up before midnight and lay there going “humph”, but we did eventually get to sleep properly and woke up with the alarm at 0500. After a quick breakfast, we hit the road and were inside the National Park before 0600. Excellent – we were virtually the first vehicle up the road past the first campsite. While it wasn’t in great shape, the road was entirely passable (with care), which was a relief, and allowed us to look out for and see some crackers early doors, as they say. The highlights were certainly Kalij Pheasant and a female Grey Peacock-pheasant, ably supported by several Large-tailed Nightjars, a group of Bar-backed Partridges and even some good old Red Junglefowl.
We headed directly up to the summit, 28km past the main gate, and started birding in quite cool and windy conditions. It was slow going at first, but we did eventually connect with several good flocks. The star bird was undoubtedly a stunning Ratchet-tailed Treepie – this is the only place to see this bird in Thailand. But we also saw plenty of Bulbuls, Babblers, Scimitar-babblers, various leaf warblers, plus the odd Vernal Hanging Parrot, Leafbird, Buff-naped Woodpecker and flycatcher thrown in for good measure.
This lot kept us well amused for almost the whole morning, and after a dubious cup of coffee at the so-called “café”, we dropped back down to the lower campsite, stopping several times on the way for piculets (of both species), Hill Blue Flycatcher, Fire-breasted Flowerpecker and more.
Lunch called, and turned out to be a pretty fiery affair – but welcome. We birded the lower campsite for a while after lunch, but with the sole exception of a magnificent overflight by seven Wreathed Hornbills, it was clear that bird activity had dropped off – and we were knackered! So it was gently home, and back in time for a bit of sitting about, a little walk in the garden, and some general mooching before dark.
Up a little later this morning for an 0630 breakfast, and then off to the Lung Sin bird hide, just under 4km away. We were met by the proprietor’s sister, and were in place by just after seven. She put down seed, fruit and fresh water, and we settled in to wait.
While there were lulls, there was a decent if quite small variety of birds to see (plus squirrels!): both Necklaced Laughing-thrushes, Emerald Dove, Red Junglefowl, Scaly-breasted (=Green-legged) Partridge, White-browed Scimitar-babbler, Black-naped Monarch, White-rumped Shama, Striped Tit-babbler and Puff-throated Babbler being the best, apart from the star prize of a 1st winter Siberian Blue Robin – superb!
By 1030, activity had dropped right off, so we returned to take stock, speak in more than a whisper and actually move on what is still a rather cool day, despite the sun being out. Chilly round the edges, really!
After a lengthy lunchtime chill – and a little birding (Thick-billed Warbler was the highlight) – it was back to Lung Sin for the afternoon session from 1500-1800. Mostly, it was the same again, but we did get a nice flurry towards the end of the afternoon, with Bar-backed Partridge, Abbott’s Babbler, no fewer than five Siberian Blue Robins, including a superb adult male, and a very late Slaty-legged Crake. The icing on the cake nearly appeared – we heard an Eared Pitta calling, but it simply would not show before darkness fell!
Today was going to be mostly travel, but we did get a nice tip for a spot to check not far from KK – so we did, successfully finding it by GPS coordinates and blind luck. It was a nice little patch of dry forest on top of a hill, mostly occupied by a giant reclining Buddha and assorted shrines, but there was enough habitat to support a small selection of forest birds – but sadly not the hoped-for Black-headed Woodpecker. The highlight was, weirdly, a flyover Eastern Marsh Harrier!
It was now time to take a deep breath and make the long, 360km+ drive east past Bangkok and north-east to Khao Yai NP. Not a lot to report bar lots of near misses and thundering lorries – and an amusing lunch by coupon at a service station halfway.
We finally got to Khao Yai at about 1530, and checed in to Baan Saranya We checked out the entry arrangements for the Park tomorrow, and had a quick look at Brown Shrike, Pied Stonechat and Sooty-headed Bulbul in the hotel “garden”, before going for an excellent meal at The Chocolate Factory just round the corner – wholly out of place, at least compared to the homely comforts of the last few days.
This evening we checked our phones, and got appalling news. Our keenest and most full-on birder in the NHS for years, young Cameron Bespolka, has been killed in a skiing accident in Austria. Words fail us.
Up at 0530, and straight into the park. As expected, we beat all the grockles – and in fact all day, while it was busy at the honeypots, no-one was on the trails apart from us at all! We did Trail B near the HQ (female Siamese Fireback, Blue Rock Thrush, Siberian Stonechat), the Boonsong Leekagul Campsite (2 Mugimaki Flys, White-throated Rock Thrush, 2 Great Hornbills), the campsite at Orchid Falls (2 Orange-headed Ground Thrush, 2 Siberian Blue Robin, White-rumped Shama) and the lovely 3-4km walk along the river from the main falls back to the Orchid Falls – this last section produced a heartstopping moment, with Red-headed Trogon and Banded Broadbill in the same clump of bamboo!
This lot (quality rather than quantity, really) brought us to lunch at HQ, and then a snooze in the car for an hour before exploring the km33 trail (Sultan Tit, Blue-winged Leafbird, Pale Blue Fly) and finally a couple of hours at the waterhole watchtower. Here, the undoubted highlight was a great view of a Palm Civet, from directly above, right out in the open, in full daylight! We also had Bright-headed Cisticola, several Mountain Imperial Pigeons, 2 Wreathed Hornbills, several thousand bats in two tight swarms overhead and at last light, a couple of Great Eared Nightjars.
Thoroughly knackered, we left the park after dark, and dropped in for a bizarre meal in the Khao Yai Cowboy Resort – truly postmodern, but quite good.
0530 start again, and back into the Park via the North Gate. This time, with Gibbons as our main target and birds incidental (sort of!) we did a dawn patrol at km33, and soon heard Gibbons whooping – but couldn’t see one. We did find a good fruiting tree and had Green- and Blue-eared Barbets, plus some Pompadour Green Pigeons.
Undeterred, we moved on to Park HQ, and after a coffee and some time at the Boonsong Leekagul campsite, where we saw the Mugumaki Fly and the White-throated Rock-thrush again, plus a Blue Whistling Thrush and (finally) a properly seen Radde’s Warbler, we redid Trail B. Things were very quiet, with just a few of the more regular forest species, and again Gibbons appeared to be eluding us. But finally one gave itself up, whooping wildly in the top of the tallest tree on the trail, swinging about like a cream-coloured cuddly toy – excellent! [Later research revealed this to be a White-handed Gibbon.]
Very satisfied with our haul, we did a recce of the mountain at the southern end of the park, ready for tomorrow – not many birds (excepting Hill Blue Flycatcher and Siberian Blue Robin), but stunning views, a plate of chips and some chat with some Thai road cyclists with very expensive bits of kit.
Post lunch at a now very busy HQ, we decided to spend a couple of hours redoing km33 – and this time we hit bird paydirt, with at least five Siamese Firebacks (including three stunning males), a Banded Broadbill, a party of at least five Silver-breasted Broadbills, two Red-headed Trogons, Eastern Crowned Warbler, Swinhoe’s Minivet and assorted migrants and forest residents – very birdy, and a good way to finish the birding day.
Very tired, and Julia not 100%, we left the park a little early, got some supplies and some air in our dubious rear tyre. Dinner for Simon on his own tonight – ask Julia’s stomach why!
Fortunately, no gastric disaster has befallen us. Phew. So it was away to the highest point of the Park for shortly after first light – sadly no chance of any pheasants on account of the many tourists travelling up to see the sunrise (and it was cloudy). But we did find a Grey-backed Shrike at the top, along with a flock of Black-throated Laughing-thrushes, and a little way down the road, rather meagre pickings of Ashy Bulbul, Hill Blue Flycatcher, Black-naped Oriole, Striped Tit-babbler and various other species.
The campsites were all depressingly busy and noisy, but as ever, an excursion off the road soon led to peace, quiet and plenty of birds. We redid the first half of the riverside waterfall trail, seeing a really nice range of species, with highlights in a flock of Swinhoe’s Minivets, Sultan Tit, Green-billed Malkoha, Oriental Pied Hornbill, White-crested Laughing-thrush, Abbott’s Babbler, Sulphur-breasted Warbler, Eastern Crowned Warbler and Banded Broadbill – 3 of the latter! And we even found a second Gibbon – this time a Pileated Gibbon, singing madly in the treetops.
After an early lunch and coffee at HQ (with a Blue-bearded Bee-eater and a Great Hornbill thrown in), we hit the road south, through the depressingly poor southern half of the park, and out onto the bigger roads towards Bangkok.
Without difficulty, we found our hotel, and then filled up the car and returned the lovely Toyota Vios to the hire company. A taxi ride got us back to base, and we decided to give any attempt at a Bangkok city centre raid a miss – just too much hassle! Simon found an excellent street market across the main road: he came home with a peanut snack, a pair of +1 reading glasses (his first ever.... L), a bunch of orchids, a can of lager and a pair of Slipknot sports socks, all for just shy of £2.50. Result!
A good night’s sleep and a lie-in later, and it was time for our entirely non-birding day. Apart from a Blue-tailed Bee-eater past the window after breakfast. And a big roost of alba wagtails in Chiang Dao at dusk.
We dawdled our way to Bangkok airport, and killed time as well as we could. Boring. But finally we flew, and arrived in Chiang Mai. Much more manageable in size! The new car is identical to the old one, except younger and shinier. We found our way successfully to the massive Lotus hotel, just outside the town centre, and took a tuk-tuk in to view the sights, such as they are. The main event was the Wat Phra Singh temple complex, which was quite cool in a low-key way, but otherwise Chiang Mai was mostly notable for ageing hippies, “alternative” gap year students showing their rejection of conformity by all wearing the same clothes, and youngish couples trying to extend their youth despite dragging a screaming and unwilling child around. Bah humbug.
We did, however, take superb fruit smoothies/frappes by the river, and partook of a frankly massive and superb Italian meal at Pom Pui restaurant. Really excellent. Shopping for supplies for the proper part of the holiday, then bed.
Breakfast at six with a large Japanese tour group, and away by 0630 for the 90 minute drive south-west to Doi Inthanon. We eventually found the Inthanon Highland Resort (it was not easy) and left our bags, and set off up to the very summit of the mountain, at 2565m. Chilly but not exactly Arctic at the top, and depressingly busy by 0930. Still, we scored quickly with Ashy-throated Warbler, Mrs Gould’s Sunbird, Chestnut-crowned Laughing-thrush, Dark-backed Sibia and Bar-throated Minla, and some really excellent coffee.
Next, we dropped down to the almost equally overrun Cheddis (Buddhist reliquary monuments), but did find a quiet spot to see Hill Prinia, Japanese White-eye and a few other bits and bobs. Lunch was surprisingly good in the little café there.
Post lunch, we dropped further downhill to the km37.5 track, and had a very enjoyable hour or two on the overgrown jeep track there. The undoubted highlight was Slaty-bellied Tesia (flipping hard, and involving a very severe (Simon) / trivial (Julia) bamboo cut to Simon’s finger), and we also saw Chestnut-vented Nuthatch, Hume's Treecreeper, Black-eared Shrike-babbler, Yellow-bellied Fantail and Large Niltava.
Another 3km downhill, and the km34.5 track was also rather good, with a decent number of birds – White-throated Fantail, Grey-cheeked Fulvetta, Chestnut-crowned and Blyth’s Warblers, Yellow-cheeked Tit and Blue-winged Minla. We also hooked up with Andy and Carlos from KK, and swapped some news and gen.
Then down the hill completely (via a recce at km13), for an ice-cream and a final hour or so at the parakeet tower near the hotel – no parakeets, but Striated Swallow, Dark-rumped Swift and various typical open country birds.
Dinner was more than adequate, but again, we are dog-tired!
Christmas Day and Boxing Day
Merging these two days into on, as we effectively did the same thing both days! The birds were limited in number but subtly different, and we racked up a good number of new species, as well as finishing off the “expected” specialities.
We spent early mornings checking waterfalls/rapids – success with Slaty-backed Forktail and Plumbeous Redstart, but failure with White-crowned Water Redstart, and the worst possible outcome with Black-backed Forktail – Simon saw it but Julia didn’t! Argh! And that despite no fewer than FOUR visits to the km13 site.
We also “did” the summit area twice more, eventually nailing Green-tailed Sunbird and Chestnut-winged Fulvetta, plus Himalayan Bluetail and lots more good coffee and great views of the very tame birds at the café.
Several sessions at kms37.5 and 34.5 did eventually turn up a goodly list of species, but the going was very slow at times! We managed to see Slaty-bellied Tesia on both days, remarkably, plus highlights including Pallas’s, Blyth’s, Dusky and Buff-barred Warblers, Large and Rufous-bellied Niltavas, White-throated Fantail, White-rumped Falcon, Eyebrowed Thrush, Pygmy Blue Flycatcher, Grey-backed Shrike, Grey Bushchat, Little Pied Flycatcher, Short-billed Minivet and several more! But it was slow at times, and the total number of birds seen was relatively poor. Still, that’s forests for you!
We also managed to fit in two visits to Mr Deang’s bird café / hostel / restaurant, ate well there and enjoyed his Little Spiderhunter, albeit with a lack of any mega thrushes!
A relaxed start with some gentle birding around the hotel this morning, which was surprisingly productive, with both Yellow-vented and Yellow-bellied Flowerpeckers, Asian Barred Owlet, Coppersmith Barbet and Hoopoe.
After a slap-up feed, and Simon successfully undertaking some punting on the lake on a rather rickety bamboo raft, we hit the road, and stopped off in Chiang Mai for coffee – about half way. We arrived at Chiang Dao at about 1400, and successfully located Malee’s in the shadow of the mountain. Once checked in and introduced to the various cats and dogs, we saddled up and explored the Temple area, including the famous gully – which had no birds in it. But we did see some decent flocks around the Temple itself, including new species like Asian Fairy Bluebird and Ruby-cheeked Sunbird, and Blue-winged Leafbird, Black-naped Monarch and other regular flocking species.
We packed in a little before dusk, giving Simon time to go and get the requisite permits for tomorrow....
A long day in the field. Up at 0500, away in Uncle Buck’s 4x4 at 0530 with Andy and Carlos, and bumpily up Den Ya Kat mountain. We were at the right altitude just as dawn broke, and almost the first bird we saw was one of our two major targets – Giant Nuthatch! Huge, as the name suggests, and conveniently in a tree with four other species for comparison. Superb.
We spent the whole day up high, and while we did see lots of good stuff – Grey-headed Parrotbill, Slender-billed and Maroon Orioles, Brown-backed Needletail, Collared Owlet, Orange-bellied Leafbird, Slaty-backed Flycatcher, various Phylloscs, Chestnut-flanked White-eye and more, it was tough and very slow going at times, albeit in spectacular surroundings.
By 1600, we were shattered, and descended even more bumpily (Simon sat in the back of the pick-up this time, for extra pain) to an excellent slap-up dinner and debrief back at Malee’s.
What an unbelievable morning! We set out for the rank field opposite the football pitch with grand plans to recreate a totally unbelievably good September day on Fair Isle, but we did not really believe we would succeed with the near perfect score we achieved! Here goes: Radde’s, Greenish, Thick-billed and Yellow-browed Warblers, plus decent views of a Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler and incredibly good, close views of a Lanceolated Warbler, two stunning male Siberian Rubythroats, Chestnut-eared Bunting, Long-tailed Shrike, Taiga Flycatcher and Red-rumped Swallows overhead – and that was just the Palearctic migrants on the British list! We also saw Little Green Bee-eater, White-headed Bulbul, Lesser Coucal, Lineated Barbet, Orange-fronted Leafbird, Crested Serpent Eagle, White-rumped Shama, White-rumped Munia and lots more besides in just two shortish visits either side of a superb and hearty breakfast (over which a Grey-crowned Warbler and some Rufous-fronted Babblers pitched up).
We spent the rest of the morning visiting two “trashy” sites near Chiang Dao. The first, a series of stepped reservoirs, produced Rufous-winged Buzzard, Red Avadavat and a huge flock of drinking Himalayan Swiftlets and a nearby flyover Northern Goshawk, and the second, the hard-to-find dry rice paddies nearer town, was really just a recce in what was the hot part of the day.
We took a snack-food lunch back at Malee’s, and then had a siesta – bliss – followed by a short visit to the Temple and gully. Very few birds about indeed, but it was again lovely and peaceful, apart from the odd crass tourist (not us).
Dinner tonight was nothing short of spectacular – at the Nest2 restaurant just down the road. Really, really excellent and varied Thai food, from tuna salad wrapped in leaves to crispy fish with a lemongrass and chilli sauce to one of the best chocolate milkshakes in history. What a blow-out....
Our last day in Thailand was hardly a strenuous one – but we did a good few extra birds. After a relatively late start, and waiting for the dense fog to clear, we headed up to the Temple one last time, and it was well worth it, with a nice mixed flock holding a Great Iora and a Sultan Tit, among others, some Buff-breasted Babblers, and best of all a cracking little Asian Stubtail in the Gully.
Next was a drive up and over the Mung Kuong road, which was frustrating, given the narrow road, the many twists and turns, and the almost no pull-offs! However, we found a few bits and pieces in the hot part of the day, the best being Bamboo Woodpecker.
Siesta-time struck once again today – bird activity was low anyway, and we have hit the slightly jaded stage – home time! But we had enough energy to drag ourselves down to the Chiang Dao rice paddies for a couple of hours in the late afternoon, and added a stack of trip ticks, Richard’s Pipit, Pintail Snipe, Oriental Skylark and Wire-tailed Swallow among them. A neat way to finish the trip – and we’ve ended up with a total of around 270 species.
So, in all, and assuming all goes well with the flights to Bangkok and on to London tomorrow (fingers crossed) this has been a fun and action-packed trip, and a welcome return to the “old school” independent birding trips of old. Result!
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