Saturday, December 4, 2010

Birding Kaeng Kracharn National Park: A Day Trip with Tony "Eagle Eye" & Co.

Although the primary purpose of my trip to the erstwhile Kingdom of Siam was for dental work, I couldn't let such a long trip to such a wonderful birding location go without an excursion to add a few birds to my life list.  So I booked a day trip to Kaeng Krachan National Park with expert local bird guide Tony "Eagle Eye."

Kaeng Krachan is Thailand's largest national park, encompassing around 45 square kilometers near the border with Burma (aka Myanmar), and is about a 3 1/2 hour drive from Bangkok; it's home to over 300 species of birds, almost all of them potential "life birds" to me (meaning I'd be seeing them for the first time in my life).

As every birder knows, the day often starts before dawn, and facing a long drive from Bangkok meant an even earlier one: Tony picked me up at the hotel at 4:00am local time, and together with his wife and his brother as a driver, we set off for our day trip.  We made a stop for coffee and some breakfast along the way at a 7-11 (yes, they have 7-11s in Thailand), and the sun was just starting to come up as we neared Kaeng Krachan.

The mountainous forests at that hour are alive with sounds that I as a birder from the United States (with a smidgen of birding in the Caribbean and Europe under my belt) to be totally novel, like something out of a movie.  On familiar turf, I rely on birding "by ear" fairly heavily, helping me know which birds are hanging out in the trees and brush... but in Thailand, I was on completely unknown ground.  (I did, later in the day, recognize what had to be a woodpecker's short, high chip--that was nearly the only familiar bird sound of the trip!)  Noisier than the birds were the many gibbons, which made an unearthly racket.

A Dusky Langur
Speaking of the various primates we saw--including, I think, the noisy Black-handed Gibbons--were some Dusky Langurs, one of which I caught on film as it perched right above our car.

From the very start of our morning birding, Tony was an incredible professional.  He'd have his spotting scope out and set up before I even had begun to guess at where the birds in the dense forest canopy were.  Now, I know I'm a middling-good birder at best and have frequently found myself awed by the birding skills of friends like expert Florida birder Adam Kent (and his wife Gina), but I have to say that Tony really, really impressed me with his birding.  We'd be driving along the dirt roads through the park, and he'd signal a stop and almost immediately have a new bird in sight, no matter how thick or dense the forest above us--and he knew them all by ear and name.  I'd studied my copy of Birds of Thailand before the trip to at least familiarize myself with the sorts of things I'd see, but I would have been all day flipping pages without Tony.

As all of the birds would be new to me, I didn't have a list of particulars I just had to see (though to be fair, I kind of did want to see a Flameback, as the similarly-sized and appearing Pileated Woodpecker is one of my personal favorites back home).  So, pretty much from the outset of the trip, I was chalking new life birds on my list--as I explained to Tony, even the most common of birds would be exciting to me for this first time birding in southeast Asia.  Indeed, I recall my first visit to California, when I saw a Western Scrub Jay for the first time and was just mesmerized by a bird which is as common there as the Blue Jay is back here in the eastern US.

An Emerald Dove
In most parts of the United States, we typically see only two or three dove species with any ease, and the most common, the Mourning Dove and the imported Rock Dove (aka the ubiquitous park bench pigeon) are indeed so ordinary so as to be not worth a second glance.  I've indeed never been much interested in doves, outside the one time a Mourning Dove tried to nest in the tree outside our window in Vienna.  Yet in Thailand, the dozens of dove species struck me as beautiful and unique.

Mountain Imperial Pigeon

A White-browed Scimitar Babbler (I think!)
The dense forest coupled with the grey skies of the day made photography a bit of a challenge, necessitating high ISOs (I ended up putting my Canon 50D in "auto ISO" mode, where it could range up to a noise-plagued ISO 1600 if needed) and quick reflexes.  I do have to say that my Canon 300mm f4L coupled with 1.4x teleconverter--my normal "poor man's" birding setup as I've never had the spare change to pick up a 500mm or 600mm lens (any generous patrons out there?!)--wasn't quite up to the challenges of autofocusing in such conditions.  If I could have spared the extra 120mm of focal length, removing the 1.4x teleconverter would have probably helped a lot, as it noticeably slows autofocus on non-1-series Canon bodies.  Actually, I think digiscoping might have been the way to go, given what a great job Tony did getting the scope onto the birds.  But, I got a lot of "record" shots and a few real keepers, too--I was pretty happy overall with my day of bird photography.

A Bulbul--I think it's a Flavescent Bulbul
After a great morning of birding which included spotting a pair of Great Hornbills--massive birds which can weigh up to 9 pounds and which are best described to the non-birder as looking a bit like a Toucan--and some impressive Greater Racket-tailed Drongos among the many other species we saw, we stopped for lunch near a stream.  Tony provided lunch and had brought along a nice selection of fresh fruit, including apples, oranges (which in Thailand are green-skinned), grapes, and some persimmons from China.  We had packets of steamed rice to combine with chicken, egg, or a vegetable mix Tony warned was quite spicy when I reached for some (and it was--but I adore spicy food and had in fact had some super-spicy kaeng khiao wan or green curry for lunch the day before).

Butterflies at a Mineral "Lick"
Appropriate for someone coming from Chateau Papillon, nearby was a spectacular sight: dozens of butterflies gathered at the edge of the water, apparently collecting minerals from the red clay soil (that red clay was too-familiar as well for someone living on the piedmont-side of the fall line in Virginia).

We birded in the lower elevations alongside the streams and rivers throughout the afternoon, and as Tony had promised earlier in the day, we indeed did get to see some Greater Flamebacks--a group of five of them, all told!  Although I didn't get a photo of these beautiful woodpeckers (they were so deep in the foliage it was a challenge making them out at all), getting to see them was in and of itself a wonderful treat.  (The photos in the linked Wikipedia article above really do not do them justice.)

Red-bearded Bee Eater
One of the noisier birds of the day was the beautiful Red-bearded Bee Eater.  I can't describe its sounds, other than to say that much like the Carolina Wren, the bird's volume is far greater than its body size would suggest.

Tony patiently pointed out the locations of several species I had a hard time spotting in the forest, using a green laser pointer to help steer me in the right direction.

Tony "Eagle Eye" (Thanaphat Kinglek) and his wife
In contrast to the morning, the afternoon was fairly quiet--though as I said above, we did see several great birds in the afternoon, including another hornbill, this time an Oriental Pied Hornbill. Though my photo wasn't the best I could have taken, it was again a great spotting for a Thailand birding newbie like me.

Oriental Pied Hornbill
On our way back to Bangkok, we stopped along the Bight of Bangkok to look for the rare and critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper, which winters in southeast Asia.  Just as the sun was about to set, Tony found one amongst the flocks of plovers and other shorebirds and called me over excitedly to his scope.  Though it was too far off for me to attempt to get even a "record" photo of, I still got to see a fantastic species; there are less than 2500 of them left in the world.  The sandpiper's spoon bill is unmistakable.

Plovers along the Bight of Bangkok
After that magnificent spotting, we climbed back into the car for the drive home, stopping for dinner at the ubiquitous 7-11, with some hot dogs and some sort of sweet-filled fried pasty for dessert.  It was a long day of birding, starting at 4:00am and wrapping up around 8:00pm, but a worthwhile trip.  Overall, I added several dozen new species to my "life list," including in addition to those I've pictured and mentioned: the Vernal Hanging Parrot, the Asian Fairy Bluebird, several flycatchers (Tickell's, Verditer, Ferruginous, and Hill Blue, I believe), the Sultan Tit, and the Little Spider-hunter which buzzed me while I was looking for a different bird entirely.  (And many others!)

Sunset over the Bight of Bangkok
It was a great birding expedition, and I cannot stress enough what a great guide Tony "Eagle-Eye" was.  I do hope I can talk Beth into making the long trip to Thailand in the future, and that we can both spend a couple of days birding under Tony's expert eyes.  I'd love to be able to bring our friend and fellow birder Adam Kent along, too, and share the experience with him and put Adam's birding acumen to the test.

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