Khao Nor Joo Jee, Krabi and Kaengkrachan 30/4-7/5/01.
Dreams do come through!
It started during the last days of 2000. I was pondering the upcoming year and making resolutions when the idea came to me to pray for an invitation to a longer birdwatching trip (I normally camp/birdwatch with kids for just a few days). It took only 3 days before my prayer was answered. A friend from Singapore, Kim Chuah, wrote an e-mail asking if I’d like to help organize a major trip to the South of Thailand. I had never seriously thought of going down south as it is too far and would be very time- consuming.
Nevertheless, the dream started to grow. After 4 months of regular communications and preparations, we were ready. The team was to consist of Kim Chuah and his brother Lim Kim Seng, both extremely talented and knowledgeable with Southeast Asian avifauna. Also Professor Ng Soon Chai, who had his mind set on videoing as many species as possible. (He has recently finished a project filming the Hornbills in the region and is now contemplating doing the same with the Pittas.) Tai Ping Ling, a former banker, turned birder, in quest for more ‘ticks” and Tom and Marie Tarrant, enthusiastic birders from Brisbane, Australia who also wanted to add to their comprehensive list of South-east Asian species. Lim Kim Keang and Tan Ju Lin, avid birders from Singapore also came along for the first leg of the journey.
I met up with Tom and Marie at Bangkok airport and we flew down to Phuket where we picked up a car and drove on to Bahn Tieo, Krabi. In spite of written directions we ended up lost. (We arrived at Klong Tom around 2 a.m.) As you turn left at the intersection towards Thung Yai, take an immediate right 100 meters down this road. We didn’t, and couldn’t find our way in the dark night. Fortunately, in the dead of that night, we found some people hanging around and hired a motorcycle guy who happily drove us to Morakot resort where we were booked. After only a couple of hours’ sleep, dawn came upon us and drowsiness vanished away. Great was our anticipation of what was in store. To my extreme pleasure, a pair of Black and red Broadbills flew into the tree in the pond behind the resort. The rarest of the Broadbills in Thailand was building a nest. Blue-eared Kingfisher rapidly flew across the pond and perched on a low branch, spearing attacks on the unaware fish below.
After breakfast, we decided to search for Gurney’s Pitta. The one and only reason most birders visit this site. We spent the whole morning in search of this elusive bird but to no avail. Afternoon welcomed us with heavy downpour (some of us then turned into frog watchers!). It was then unanimous that we needed to employ the help of Mr Yotin (the local guide). Arrangements were then made for the following day. Yotin knows the forest there probably better then anyone else and spends a lot of time monitoring the area. He took us to one of his stakeouts with a naturally made hide after first having divided the group in two. While waiting for the first group to come back I saw my first Rufous-winged Philentoma and felt encouraged. After only a little while the group excitedly came back and exclaimed that ‘we had a beautiful male on the floor’. We were all ‘thumbs up’ but I must admit I was a bit worried whether we in the second group would see the bird or not.
In the hide, Yotin asked us to be very still. Each minute seemed like an eternity as our anticipation grew. Yotin kept calling the bird by imitating a female’s call. Then after 15 minutes, something moved and again a male bird came in full sight and this was eternalized on Prof Ng’s video camera and everyone else’s memory banks. It was a special moment and even wet my eyes a bit, knowing how privileged I was to be able to see this unique bird in the wild. The bird scurried around for a while and then retraced it steps back into the rattans again. We saw no signs of ‘worm feeding or being dependent on human hand-outs’.
Later that afternoon we went on a longer walk with Yotin who helped us understand the forest and its delicate balance. While walking through Gurney’s Pitta area, he said to look out, and lo and behold, again I got to see another male bird, but this time through the binoculars (a real ‘tick’, ha!).
On our walk, we also had Scarlet-rumped Trogon, Fulvous-chested Flycatcher, Indian Cuckoo boomed its call ‘in our ears’, while Short-tailed and other Babblers moved about in the bushes. The whole area is full of Babblers whereof the most exciting one for me was Large Wren Babbler.
Other good birds were Green and Black-yellow Broadbill and a beautiful Chestnut-bellied Malkhoa with its bright orange orbital flesh. The white race of Asian Paradise-Flycatcher was one of the easiest birds to observe as it fluttered & danced amongst the tree tops in an angelic manner.
One very disturbing observation was to see how many of the more mature trees were cut into and then burned for its resin. These trees show up every five meters. How this can be allowed in a protected area is beyond me. Where are the courageous and stout-hearted custodians of this pristine wilderness? Sleeping in their barracks, while on duty?
We triumphantly returned to our resort where a rather forlorn-looking British birder was hanging over a beer. He exclaimed ‘I have spent 6 days in search of the Pitta, not counting last year’s visit and so far to no avail’. We then again realized how blessed we had been.
We spent another morning at the site and enjoyed the diversity of birds but must add that the number of birds was quite low. Anyone coming to Thailand for lowland rainforest birds will probably do better at the recently opened wildlife sanctuary of Hala–Bala in the extreme South.
Mangroves at Krabi
Next on our agenda was the Mangroves at Krabi. We settled into a hotel across from the mangroves.
We checked out a smaller forest a little North of Krabi called Bahn Nai Chong. Majestic trees shaped into a dome canopy gave an impressive feeling but very few birds were around. Later that night some tried for Gould’s Frogmouth there but without any luck.
We had dinner at a floating restaurant and were entertained by a Great-eared Nightjar who kindly flew over our heads. Arrangements were made with a guy called ‘Muff’. He is from the same village as the famous Mr. Dai but considerably cheaper. We paid 800 Baht for 2 hours for all of us.
Looking out the window the next morning brought nothing but dark clouds and a couple of Asian Glossy Starlings on the roof across. Fearing the worst but praying for the best, we went out and defied the drizzling rain. Only a few minutes later the sun started to shine and we were on our way. After only a few minutes, our first Brown-winged Kingfisher was spotted. Incredible colors, shining in the bright sunlight! Probably the nicest Kingfisher I have ever seen. Then someone recognized the song of a rare Mangrove Blue Flycatcher and so started our next endeavor, trying to call out this pearl. It eventually flew out and perched in the open while singing away and another impression was added to our journey. On and on we went, hearing things like, Mangrove Pitta, all the while seeing more Brown-winged Kingfishers and other more common birds. Then at the end of our 2 hours while having viewed a Common Flameback, a burst of laughter came in and a brightly pink Ruddy Kingfisher gave us the honor of full view. Definitely, a top bird. The whole boat ride was very pleasant and we could have spent more time here if it wasn’t for the scheduled flight to Bangkok from Phuket.
Once in Bangkok, we picked up the van at my house and drove to Kaengkrachan some 3 hours away. It rained heavily and the drive took much longer then normal. We checked in at the park’s bungalows. A bungalow for eight was 1600 Baht. (Booked in advance.) We brought our own fans and mosquito burners but bedding was included in the accommodations.
We had to pay our entrance fee (foreigner’s price) of 200 Baht per person for each day we entered the upper parts of the park. Only way to avoid this is to camp out in tents at the km 15 campground.
Kaengkrachan really is an interesting park and especially so during breeding season when many of the Broadbills build their ball-like nests hanging over roads and streams.
At the headquarters, there are plenty of Large-tailed Nightjars on the ground while still dark. The road into the park center is dotted with Greater Coucals, Red-wattled Lapwings, White-breasted Waterhens and Red Junglefowl. We even had a daily pair of Laced Woodpeckers in search for vertebrae on the road and a Blue-winged Pitta flushed along the roadside. Another time we almost drove over Crested Serpent-Eagle and had close views of Oriental Honey-Buzzard in a tree.
We concentrated our birding to 3 areas. Km, 16-18, which can be slow at times but often reveals many special species whereof these were some: Brown Hornbill ( r. tickelli) with it’s blue eye orbit, Raffle’s Malkoha, Blue Pitta (much to Kim Chuah's delight), Grey-headed, Laced, Streak-breasted, and Rufous Woodpecker, along with Common and Greater Flameback as well as Greater Yellownape. Several Silver-breasted Broadbills, Banded Broadbill, Dusky Broadbill, Heart-spotted Woodpecker, Spot-necked Babbler and Greater Necklaced Laughingthrushes were other birds around. We also heard a Kingfisher calling and all those who heard it thought it belonged to Banded Kingfisher. I desperately tried to get views of this attractive forest dwelling bird who feeds mainly on insects, but to no avail. Later on, while at the Hornbill conference at Phuket, someone pointed out that it was the highly sought after and extremely rare (in this park), Rufous-collared Kingfisher.(We were able to record the call). Had I realized what it was, I would have search the branches next to the nearby stream as this bird feeds on fish.
Km 27.5 is another hot spot and here I had a flock of half a dozen White-hooded Babblers while working my way down the road. Here also Hornbills are heard throughout the day and can also be seen in the taller trees on top of the ridge beside the road. (One afternoon 10 Brown HB were roosting in a tree). The others walked up the road and so I missed the Pintailed Parrotfinches, another excellent bird. Walking up and down the road here between 26-28 yielded things like; Black-throated Laugningthrushes, Rufous-browed Flycatcher deeper inside the forest, good views of Pale Blue Flycatcher, Great and Wreathed Hornbill and a pair of very loud and low flying Plain-pouched Hornbills. Two Long-tailed Broadbill nests were a delight to observe and a Collared Owlet with a Babbler in its talons was being pestered by a hoard of smaller and agitated birds. We kept hearing Bar-backed Patridge from the gully behind but failed to call the birds out. I decided to work my way through the thickets and then found the understorey to be quite open. I simply set down here for awhile wondering what would happen. Suddenly, a Bar-backed Partridge came bursting up the gulley with its diagnostic head pattern and black and white wings patch. That made up for my lack of Parrotfinches! (A Palm Civet scurried the grounds as well.)
Some 400 meters down the dirt road that starts next to the parking lot, a pair of Red-bearded Bee-eaters were nesting and feeding their young in an excavated burrow. To sit quietly and sort of interact with an amazing creature like this is simply a marvelous experience.
Another time while going down the same road I was amazed to see a male Blue Pitta out in the open on the leaf covered road. As we approached the bird it flew up and perched on a fallen tree, much like the way this bird often is portrayed in drawings and photographs.
Another Pitta, the Rusty-naped, came up from the gulley behind the carpark and kept calling from within the foliage. Ever so elusive it was not possible to get views of this bird
Of course, everyone wanted to see the famous Ratchet-trailed Treepie but it was not to be found around km 27. We instead spent some midday hours at the viewpoint at km 32. After having been fed a steady diet of Blue-throated and Great Barbet, Thick-billed and Mountain Imperial Pigeon, Black Eagle and a few Great Hornbills on the wings, a shining example of the Ratchet-tailed Treepie showed up. It went from tree to tree and finally came about 3 meters from all of us, benevolently posing for our team of trigger-happy cameramen.
While the food at Morakot resort had been good and abundant (Very westernised in its seasoning, out of consideration for the many foreign birders I presume), the food at Kaeng Pet restaurant was simply superb. We survived on instant noodles and coffee for breakfast and lunch (brought smaller kitchen) so dinners made up for any lacks.
Everyone was very happy with the park and each one of us saw birds we had long wanted.
Where else can you see Blue-bearded and Red-bearded Bee-eater on the same day in the same park?
We finally all parted after some 10 days of birding and agreed that “WE MUST DO THIS AGAIN!”