Sunday, 14 June 2009

That's all for now

I am now back in the UK after an excellent, although not entirely trouble-free (are they ever?!) trip. It was trimmed from the original 2 months and 3 weeks to just under 2 months, due to the fact that Australia ended up costing me a packet. Prices in Australia have gone up a lot since I was previously there in 1997 - more than I realised, in fact it's as expensive if not more so, as the UK - and I ended up trimming two weeks off Australia and 9 days off Thailand. Next time, I'll omit Australia and just do Asia.

The trip has had its ups, downs and grey areas, but it was highly successful. I saw most of the birds I wanted to see, apart from some seabirds due to the postponed pelagic, and got some pretty good photos, too.

 Ups: the birds, of course. Also, the Great Barrier Reef, the Warrumbungles, Cassowary House, Doi Inthanon, Khao Yai, the people I met such as Tony, Rob, Marie, George, Mr and Mrs Daeng, Somchat and 'Mr Nine'.

Downs: The biggest bummer was that the vile weather in NSW that week ensured the SOSSA pelagic from Wollongong got put back to the following week, which was a total bugger because I was leaving for Thailand before then, and the weather in Australia was pretty bad for a proportion of the time - I got wet in Cairns, Coonabarabran, Wollongong and Sydney.
Getting to Bangkok was a culture shock and the city itself  is a nightmare, gridlocked and polluted.

Things I'd do differently next time: Leave out or shorten Australia and lengthen Asia. Not be so short of money that I can't hire a car - public transport is a crap way to get around no matter where you are. Except perhaps in Singapore. Go to Asia in the winter (dry season).

Despite the troubles of the first few days I got to like Thailand very much, it's a fantastic place once you are out of Bangkok, and I hope to go back to do some more birding there, in the dry season.

Khao Yai

After arriving back in Bangkok from Chiang Mai, I stayed one night in the All Seasons Bangkok Siam Hotel in the city centre. I got a taxi from the airport and showed the driver a map with directions but, true to form as seems to be the case with Bangkok taxis, the prat still got lost and we took 2 hours to get there instead of 30 minutes. He spoke no English, it seemed, until he asked for a tip when he suddenly found he could speak very good English. He did not get a tip.

The next day, Monday, I set off for Khao Yai - taxi to Mor Chit bus station, a three hour bus ride to Pak Chong (during which I added Asian Openbill Stork to my list) and then a 20 minute journey by songthaew (pick up truck buses) to the Greenleaf Guest House 7.5 km outside Pak Chong, towards Khao Yai NP.

I booked a guide for the next day, 'Mr Nine', and we set off in his truck for the 'Cold Mountain' at 0545 the following morning. I had had no sleep the night before due to the combination of (the fear of) spiders and cockroaches, heat and a very hard mattress but I felt fine. The first birds of the day were Red-breasted Parakeets, Black-shouldered Kite and Black-collared Starling

On entering the park and paying the 400 Baht entrance fee we carried on to the first look out point and soon found Lineated BarbetGolden-fronted Leafbird, Grey-eyed Bulbul, Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike and Common Iora. Further up we found male and female Great Hornbills and their nest with a grown young one inside it, who was still being fed by the parents. We stopped and took quite a lot of photos and I managed to get some nice flight shots.

[caption id="attachment_196" align="alignnone" width="480" caption="Great Hornbill, Khao Yai NP"]Great Hornbill, Khao Yai NP[/caption]

We went for a walk in the jungle. I got my camera out of the car and moved to the back of the vehicle. There was a sudden pattering noise, like falling rain, and I looked up, to see a Pig-tailed Macaque right above where I had been standing a second earlier - I had only narrowly avoided being pissed on by a monkey!
On the jungle trail, which was dense, leechy and spidery, we got good, but brief, views of a Siamese Fireback pheasant, which was one of my target species, although I didn't get a pic due to the brevity of the views and the fact it was too dark in the forest. We also heard Imperial Pigeon and Sultan Tit, and while I didn't see the pigeon (but saw one later) I got a very quick view of the tit plus we saw Barking Deer (Muntjac) in the dense vegetation. Other birds were Greater Flameback and Greater Racket-tailed Drongo.
There were a lot of spider webs strung between trees, fortunately well above head height (unless you were taller than 6'7") as these contained huge orb spiders bigger than a man's hand. To a spider-phobic person like me, these were frankly nasty-looking although they are not dangerous unless you are an insect or a small bird.

[caption id="attachment_197" align="alignnone" width="480" caption="This spider was bigger than a man's hand"]This spider was bigger than a man's hand[/caption]

The leeches, as expected, were a nuisance. I had taken all the precautions against them, such as leech socks and plenty of repellant but I forgot one small, but important, detail. I didn't even think about tucking my shirt in, with the result that I got leeches all round my middle and on my back, happily helping themselves. My off-white (naturally!) cotton shirt, fortunately an old one, looked like I'd been the victim of a stabbing, as it was soaked in blood because leeches inject an anti-coagulant so you bleed profusely and stay bleeding for a while afterwards. The shirt has subsequently gone in the bin as the blood didn't wash out despite using 'Vanish' on it. Oh well, you're not a world birder until you have been bitten by leeches while in the pursuit of birds...!

We spent the afternoon at the top, where we found an Oriental Pied Hornbill family - the female was busy de-legging the biggest centipede I have ever seen in my life, it was easily a foot long -  and the other side of the mountain and also took the road up to a military installation where the soldiers were kind enough to let me use the 'facilities' as well! We didn't see much up there, apart from a Stripe-throated Bulbul and a lovely view so we drove back down. About a quarter of the way down we found a small party of Silver Pheasants - male, female and juvenile male - stunning birds. We got some photos; Nine is a keen bird photographer, too  and we had great fun taking pictures and comparing them.

By 4.30 I was falling asleep and feeling dizzy because of the lack of sleep the previous night, but I soon woke up when we stopped, got out and saw a Crimson Sunbird, of which I got better views than I did of the one I saw in Singapore.
Back up the mountain the lifers kept coming: Red Junglefowl (the ancestor of domestic chickens and another target species for me), Green-eared Barbet, Crested Goshawk, Needletail Swift and the gorgeous Indian Roller, another target species and one that had hitherto eluded me. I photographed the Roller, but the light was going and 1250 ISO does not really make for anything other than a record shot.

[caption id="attachment_198" align="alignnone" width="264" caption="Indian Roller at Khao Yai"]Indian Roller at Khao Yai[/caption]

Sadly, it was time to head back out of Khao Yai and back to the guesthouse, but not without adding Wreathed Hornbill and Thick-billed Green-pigeon to the list. I was hoping to see Asian Elephants, but although there were signs of their presence, such as droppings (in the words of Dr Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park: 'That is one big pile of shit!') and wrecked vegetation, I didn't see so much as a flapping ear. Likewise the gibbons - there were hoots and screams and gibbon songs all day but I didn't see anything swinging through the trees. However, the brilliant birding was what I went for so the lack of ellies and gibbons wasn't that disappointing.

The guide cost 4000 Baht, around £78, but was worth every satang, as I saw birds and more of the park than I would otherwise have done. It was brilliant and I want to go back one day.

Travelled back to Bangkok the following day. I got accosted at Mor Chit II by taxi touts (one of the less savoury things about travelling in Asia is that foreigners get hounded all the time - 'Hey you, where you go?' and while I hate it and it is very annoying, it is just one of the things you have to put up with) and ended up paying over the odds for a ride back to the All Seasons Bangkok Siam, because I couldn't be arsed to argue, but he didn't mess about and I was there in five minutes flat!

Friday, 12 June 2009

Doi Inthanon

I was going to post this last Saturday, but I couldn't be bothered and anyway, it's better late than never. Travelled to Doi Inthanon (pronounced Intanon) on 3rd June, leaving Chiang Mai at 1015 am and arriving at Mr Daeng's at 1215. Went up with Marie and we did some birding on the way there. An unexpected tick was a Cinnamon Bittern which flew across the road by the Tesco store (yes, they have Tesco's in Thailand, too) at Chom Thong.

After paying our 200 Baht each at the gate we went up to the summit, via Mr Daeng's where I was staying for a couple of nights for me to drop my bag off,  Thailand's highest point at 2565 metres above sea level, where Green-tailed Sunbird (the race of Green-tailed Sunbird on Doi Inthanon is endemic to there), Chestnut-tailed Minla and Chestnut-headed Laughingthrush were active around the summit visitor's centre. Also at the summit, round the marsh area, were Ashy-throated Warbler, Dark-backed Sibia, Grey-throated Babbler, Rufous-winged Fulvetta and Large Niltava, the latter very hard to see high up in the trees as it called it's 'Doe Ray Mee' song. It was pretty cold at the summit, which made a pleasant change from the hot humid lower elevations.

On the way back down the mountains to Mr Daeng's we got - in the fog - Hill Prinia and Flavescent Bulbul.

The next day I was joined by guide Somchat, from a nearby village. He works for Mr Daeng and is a pretty good birder, finding stuff I most likely wouldn't have found by myself. It wasn't without some trepidation that I set off, at 0615, on the back of Somchat's motorbike, but it was perfectly safe and in no time did I feel in any danger, despite coming down the mountain at 35mph with no crash helmet (I don't think my mother reads this, or I will get in trouble!), in fact it was brilliant fun. The first lifers of the day happened to be in Mr Daeng's garden - Streaked Spiderhunter and Japanese White Eye. Further up the road, at KM 34 we encountered Green-billed Malkoha, White-browed Shrike-babbler (great names these birds), the fabulous Silver-eared Mesia, Oriental Magpie Robin (not a lifer as I'd already seen these in Singapore and Bangkok) and at Check Point 2 were Yellow-cheeked Tit, Grey-cheeked Fulvetta and Mountain Tailorbird. We also got a good view of Asian Emerald Cuckoo and a briefer one of Violet Cuckoo, just up the road from CP2. Also on that stretch of road was a Japanese Sparrowhawk, high in the trees.

We continued upwards in fog and rain to the summit where we got Grey-cheeked Minivet and Yellow-bellied Fantail. After a summit visit to Thailand's highest point and a look, from the road, at the grandly named 'Princess Sirindhorn Neutron Monitor', an astronomical observatory for cosmic ray detecting, and the shrine to the late King Inthawichayanon of Chiang Mai who the mountain is named after.

It was then straight down to the lower-altitude dipterocarp forest at around KM 15, but this only resulted in three new birds: Common Flameback, Collared Falconet and Blue-winged Leafbird. Following this it was up the mountain again, to KM 20 and the Vachirathan Waterfall, in the hope of a forktail species and Blue Whistling Thrush. We found Blue Whistling Thrush easily, plus Ashy Drongo, but no forktail.

Later, we went to some paddyfields, but only saw Pied Bushchat and Paddyfield Pipit and a lot of rain. I got soaked to the skin, so as we were passing Mr Daeng's anyway we went in and I put on a dry t-shirt before we headed out again (and me having purchased a plastic raincoat from the Doi Inthanon 7 Eleven store!) to look for the Black-tailed Crake at the campsite by the park HQ. Expecting the bird to be elusive and hard to see we went armed with worms, expecting a lengthy wait but it was actually walking around, plain as anything. The supposed hardest bird to see turned out to be the easiest, as often happens.
Further up the road, beyond the market stall area, again in torrential rain (was greatful for that 25 Baht plastic raincoat!) we went down a turn off towards Mae Klang Lung, and on the road, was a Slaty-backed Forktail. We'd only been to just about every waterfall and suitable-looking riverine habitat that afternoon searching for one and there it was, on the road, of all places!

The following day, Marie came to collect me and we headed back to Chiang Mai, but not without another couple of lifers - female Scarlet Minivet (I was to see the stunning male a few days later in Khao Yai) and Black-throated Sunbird. We birded our way back to the park entrance but got nothing new, bird calls were all around but the birds themselves kept hidden, apart from a Green-billed Malkoha and a Racket-tailed Drongo.

Had to stop at the Chom Thong Tesco store for some groceries, but there was no sign of the Cinnamon Bittern.

I didn't take many pics on Doi Inthanon, due mainly to poor light and rain/fog but what I did take are in the post below.

Chiang Mai

I arrived in Chiang Mai on 30 May, but the first few days were hampered by a bad cold and a touch of the flu - NOT swine flu (I hope). Went birding at a site known to local expat US birder Marie as the 'Trash Patch' due to the huge amounts of garbage dumped there. It was at the Trash Patch that the Thailand list finally got properly going with Ashy Wood-swallow, Green Bee-eater, Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker, Grey-breasted Prinia, Sooty-headed Bulbul, Streak-eared Bulbul, Pied Bushchat, Red-wattled Lapwing, Greater Coucal, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Wire-tailed Swallow, Black Drongo, Black-collared Starling, Large-billed Crow and Common Tailorbird. Photography was hampered by the heat, the non-cooperation on the birds' part (although I got some flight shots of the lapwings) and the fact my specs kept steaming up.

Also in Chiang Mai, after returning from Doi Inthanon, I did some more 'cultural' stuff, with a visit to Wat Phra Singh. The buildings of the Wat are beautiful, very colourful with gilded dragon-like things guarding the steps up to the entrance and golden Buddhas in many different poses. One Buddha lies in an out building at the back of the gardens; he is reclining (I think that represents Buddha attaining enlightenment) and there is a LOT of gold leaf on that statue, some peeling off.

[caption id="attachment_206" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="Wat Phra Singh"]Wat Phra Singh[/caption]


[caption id="attachment_207" align="alignnone" width="200" caption="Golden Buddha"]Golden Buddha[/caption]

I liked Chiang Mai a lot more than the polluted, crowded nightmare that is Bangkok. Sure, it's got bad traffic but is much smaller and much nicer.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Some pics from Doi Inthanon

I'll write a proper post about my three days on Doi Inthanon tomorrow, but I got around 50 or so lifers. I am now back in Chiang Mai and will return to Bangkok on Sunday, but in the meantime, here's some pics from the national park. I didn't take that many and what I did get were not very good, but a few came out reasonably well - well enough that I feel that I can at least inflict them on the viewing public.

[caption id="attachment_173" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="Black-throated Sunbird in Mr. Deang's garden"]Black-throated Sunbird in Mr. Deang's garden[/caption]

[caption id="attachment_174" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="Chestnut-tailed Minla at summit of Doi Inthanon"]Chestnut-tailed Minla at summit of Doi Inthanon[/caption]

[caption id="attachment_175" align="alignnone" width="600" caption="Collared Falconet in Dipterocarp forest"]Collared Falconet in Dipterocarp forest[/caption]

[caption id="attachment_176" align="alignnone" width="600" caption="Green-tailed Sunbird at summit area of Doi Inthanon"]Green-tailed Sunbird at summit area of Doi Inthanon[/caption]