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Jewels of the South - 2010 Trip Report

This was the first trip organized and marketed as a dual venture between Birding EcoTours of South Africa and PaddleAsia (Thailand Birding) of Thailand. The tour was led by Games Punjapa, one of South Thailand’s best bird guides.

The itinerary comprised mainly of forest birding, with a boat trip every few days to provide a change of habitat and scenery. All birding was to be done in the Southern provinces of Phuket, Phang Nga, Surat Thani, Nakhon Sri Thammarat and Krabi.

Only one guest, George Ridout, signed up for the tour and at his request the trip was shortened by one day to eleven days. Ian Dugdale, a local birder and photographer joined the tour in an unofficial capacity. All photos by Ian Dugdale.

Day 1

Disaster! George called up to say he was stuck in Japan due to a plane cancellation. We would have to start a day late.

So as not to re-book everything, the itinerary was changed slightly for the first few days. Phuket was cut out completely and the visits to Sri Phang Nga and Ton Pariwat moved.

Day 2 - Thai Muang Golf Course & Sri Phang Nga National Park

After a successful airport pick-up we whisked George straight out to the abandoned Golf Course at Thai Muang. He was very happy to be birding at last after a very long journey from California.

Firstly we headed into the marsh area where we picked up a hat-trick of Lapwings in the first fifteen minutes, Grey-headed Lapwing, Red-wattled Lapwing and River Lapwing. Egrets were thin on the ground with only Eastern Cattle Egrets feeding near the buffalos. We were surprised to see a few Oriental Pratincoles wheeling about above us as we’d not seen them there before.

Next we took a walk around the golf course. Both Blue-tailed Bee-eaters and Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters were active. Pin-tailed Snipe were flushed at every turn and Watercock, Pheasant-tailed Jacana and a Cinnamon Bittern were seen at the lotus ponds. We walked further into the course to see which of the seven recently spotted species of Starlings were around. After checking all the flowering trees we’d managed to see Chestnut-tailed Starling, Rosy Starling and Philippine Glossy Starling. A tree full of Orange-breasted Green Pigeons was also found. Circling overhead were Brahminy Kites, a Grey-faced Buzzard and a Black-winged Kite.

Lesser Short-nosed Fruit BatsIt was now the middle of the day and we were overheating so we decided to move on. After making a short stop in Thai Muang town to have a look at the Black-nest Swiftlets we headed North. George had made it clear he wasn’t keen on shore birds so we gave Laem Pakarang a miss. During a fuel stop we called a Golden-bellied Gerygone out of a rubber plantation.

We only had a couple of hours at Sri Phang Nga National Park before dark and George was feeling the effects of a journey across many time zones so we just walked the main track which produced a Chestnut-breasted Malkoha and a variety of Bulbuls and Spiderhunters. Whiskered Treeswifts were hawking above the stream and a White-rumped Shama provided the music. Games found a huddle of Lesser Short-nosed Fruit Bats under a banana leaf (pictured above).

On our way back to the hotel in Khao Lak we saw many Large-tailed Nightjars feeding off the clouds of flying ants.

Day 3 - Similan Islands

The Similan Islands – After an hour’s ride in a large speedboat we spent the morning snorkelling in the clear waters of the Similans. Snorkeling here is always a joy and as well as the usual reef dwellers we had good looks at rarer fish like the Beaked Leatherjacket and the Picasso Triggerfish.

Pied Imperial PigeonOur birding here was restricted to a two hour lunch break at island 8. We were first off the boat and headed straight into the campsite to look for Pigeons. A pair of Pied Imperial Pigeons (pictured right) were feeding in a fruiting tree over the pond. In the pond itself three White-breasted Waterhens were walking about in the open.

The distinctive “honk” of White-bellied Sea-Eagle drew our attention to the skies and the bushes were alive with Asian Koels. A Black-bellied Malkoha was also feeding low to the ground. It’s always a treat to visit somewhere where the birds don’t seem to fear you.

Nicobar PigeonAfter a quick ten minute lunch we were back in the campsite and were rewarded by very close views of the amazing Nicobar Pigeon (pictured right). This bird showed no fear at all and later wandered around the hundreds of lunching tourists.

When we got back to the mainland we only had an hour of birding time left so we took a stroll around the Similan Islands NP HQ gardens. Black-naped Orioles were socialising in their usual noisy manner, A Black-capped Kingfisher was fishing in the pond and we managed to flush a Yellow Bittern.

A good variety of Flowerpeckers and Sunbirds were also seen. On the way back to the hotel we visited the idyllic beach at Khao Lak National Park to enjoy the sunset.

Day 4 - Ton Pariwat Wildlife Sanctuary & Khao Sok Reservoir

The plan today was to bird Ton Pariwat Wildlife Sanctuary in the morning on foot and then to drive up to Khao Sok to take a longtail boat out on the reservoir to look for raptors and hornbills.

Scaly-breasted BulbulTon Pariwat always kicks off at around 7am as the sun moves down the hillside and onto the road so we got there in good time and waited for the party to begin. First to arrive was a Large Woodshrike closely followed by a Dark-sided Flycatcher and a Verditer Flycatcher. Vernal Hanging Parrots called as they flew over and a stunning Scaly-breasted Bulbul (pictured right) made an appearance.

At this time of year the trees lining the road are always full of bulbuls. We counted eight species. By now the local babblers were beginning to call. Both Grey-throated Babblers and Pin-striped Tit Babblers came in but only gave brief views.

Everett's White-eyeThere had been little rain for over a month so the usual bird bath had opened up early and as well as the bulbuls we had some great looks at Everett’s White-eye (pictured right). We also had our first of many sightings of the beautiful Crimson Sunbird.

At 9 am, as usual, the raptors started finding thermals and Crested Serpent-Eagles and a lone Wallace’s Hawk-Eagle soared overhead.

We now had a two hour drive north to Khao Sok where we boarded a boat to take us out to the Western reaches of the reservoir where the water is littered with the snags of dead trees. After a thorough soaking on the way out the weather cleared and it seemed every group of trees hosted a perching raptor. We spent an hour of so “boat scoping” (a tricky process on a moving boat) them to see what was around before cruising the shoreline looking for a fruiting tree in the hope of finding some hornbills feeding. We had no luck and only saw Oriental Pied Hornbill. We had in the meantime seen many Eurasian Ospreys, a few Lesser Fish-Eagles and one Grey-headed Fish-Eagle. We also found a pair of Black Bazas drying off in a tree and a pair of Banded Woodpeckers.

This would be a great boat trip even without the birds. The scenery is just amazing and everyone felt very elated on the way to the resort at Khao Sok.

Puff-throated BabblerDay 5 - Khao Sok National Park & Khao Luang Krung Ching National Park

We spent the early morning at Khao Sok National Park river section and along the main trail.

A Puff-throated Babbler (pictured right) walked right past us in the resort garden and Games took some good photos.

A Black-capped Babbler was heard at the start of the trail and after almost giving up on it, it finally showed itself very nicely.

Rufus-collared KingfisherWe’d had a tip that a Rufous-Collared Kingfisher (pictured right) had been seen in the area so we tried a speculative call and were amazed to hear an immediate response followed by a fly-by. We were all very excited as this was a lifer for all of us. The bird kept responding by flying straight past us and into the thick forest where we couldn’t see it. We changed tack and headed into the forest ourselves to look for it. After five minutes of peering into the gloom we found a female sitting in the open. We got the scope on it and took our time enjoying the view. What a bird. The male was seen briefly but was very obscured.

No sooner had we moved on than we heard a Banded Kingfisher calling. It too came in and showed well. On our way back to the car a small group of Hairy-backed Bulbuls entertained us. A fruiting tree near the HQ was busy with Yellow-breasted Flowerpeckers.

We now had a long drive to the East coast and into the foothills of the Nakhon Si Thammarat Mountain Range where Khao Luang Krung Ching is located, our home for the next couple of days. We only managed an hour’s birding before rain set in but still managed to see Blyth’s Hawk-Eagle, Rufous-tailed Tailorbird, Raffles’s Malkoha, and a perching Black-thighed Falconet eating a cicada.

A Yellow-throated Marten was seen draped over a branch in a high tree.

Day 6 - Khao Luang Krung Ching National Park

We only had one full day at Krung Ching and the plan was to look for the Malaysian Rail-Babbler which is usually found a couple of kilometres into the forest. We started walking the main road into the park but dawn was very misty which made birding difficult. All we could see were silhouettes for the first hour. We did however find a Rufous Piculet, some Lesser Green Leafbirds, and an Asian Fairy Bluebird. As we walked down to the HQ buildings we came across a Wallace’s hawk-Eagle perching in a tree.

Green BroadbillWhen the mist had cleared we moved into the forest. Birding here is done principally with the ears rather than the eyes. We never get a long list on this trail but we do see different birds every time. As we were climbing the hill we heard a Green Broadbill (pictured right) calling close by. We called back and it came in incredibly close and sat out in the open. A rare thing for this bird. A few metres further on we came across a party of Brown Fulvettas. Although not much to look at we’re always happy to see them. A pair of Maroon Woodpeckers were our next birds. They were tricky to see but Games eventually got one of them in the scope.

We heard the Malaysian Rail-Babbler calling and set up a hide in the forest a little off the trail. As it was a Saturday the trail was busy with people going to the waterfall. After an hour in the hide we gave up as it seemed unlikely the bird would make an appearance with all the commotion nearby. It was late now and the forest was quiet as we made our way out apart from an Eastern Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher singing away in a bamboo thicket.

A late afternoon walk along a quiet road outside the park provided a pleasant change from the forest. This is an area of low intensity fruit farming, a more open habitat with plenty of trees. A Common Emerald Dove was feeding on the road as we arrived. A Dark-throated Oriole was perched in a distant tree, a pair of Great Ioras moved through and some Greater Racket-tail Drongos were flying around. We finally had some good views of a Square-tailed Drongo Cuckoo too.

After an early dinner we went back to the park to look for night birds. Luckily, Games saw a Buffy-fish Owl fly past and noted where it landed so we were able to get the scope onto it.

Day 7 - Khao Luang Krung Ching National Park & Thale Noi National Park

A clear morning made for much easier birding. We started again at the entrance gate where we called out an Abbott’s Babbler. On the walk down to the “bus stop” we didn’t come across any bird waves but did get on to some Green Ioras and a Spectacled Spiderhunter. A Scarlet-rumped Trogon flew over the road and kindly sat in the open for us to appreciate him and a pair of Buff-rumped Woodpeckers flew from tree to tree.

Cotton Pygmy-GooseWe moved onto the “bus stop” trail and were rewarded with two new sunbirds, Purple-naped Sunbird, and Ruby-cheeked Sunbird. This trail isn’t well maintained at the moment so we turned back after a kilometre or so. A Blue-winged Leafbird made a brief appearance and a flock of Thick-billed Green Pigeons flew by.

We still had an hour or so before we needed to leave so we decided to try our luck with the forktails. Behind the HQ a pair of stunning Chestnut-naped Forktails were feeding in the stream but we failed to see the White-crowned Forktails behind the restaurant. While staking them out we were distracted by a calling Orange-breasted Trogon but it refused to show itself.

Whiskered TernOn to Thale Noi for a boat trip on Southern Thailand’s largest body of fresh water. We first checked into our resort at the edge of the lake where a Pied Fantail was catching dragonflies and some White-rumped Munia were sitting in a bush.

As the boat cruised through the lotus fields Whiskered Terns (pictured right) flew beside us and egrets, bitterns and jacanas flapped away from us. Cotton Pygmy Geese (pictured above-right) were plentiful and a Yellow-bellied Prinia sang from the top of a reed. A very pleasant and relaxing afternoon.

Day 8 - Khao Pu Khao Ya National Park & Khao Nor Chuchi

The morning was spent at Khao Pu Khao Ya National Park. At first light in the large trees around the car park birds sunned themselves. A group of Brown Barbets in one tree, a Square-tailed Drongo Cuckoo in another and a Black-and-Yellow Broadbill in a third.

Streaked Wren-BabblerA pair of Banded Woodpeckers were working on a nest near the camp site but the main trail was very quiet with only Red-throated Barbet, Chestnut-winged Babbler, and Rufous-tailed Tailorbirds seen.

Streaked Wren-Babblers (pictured right) were called out at the cliff bottom and a mixed group of ioras and warblers worked their way through the trees.

We left and moved on to Khao Nor Chuchi, the site of the famous Gurney’s Pitta. We only had time for a couple of hours birding so we went to our Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher stake-out and put up the hide but nothing came. We then set up the hide at our Gurney’s stake-out, ready for the morning.

Banded PittaDay 9 - Khao Nor Chuchi

We were in the hide at dawn. Nothing for 45 minutes but then an overwintering Blue-winged Pitta hopped into view and preened in front of us for twenty minutes. A Siberian Blue Robin also visited intermittently. After another 45 minutes George was seizing up and had had enough so we packed up the hide to do some more general birding.

On the way back to the car a few Brown-backed Needletails were feeding high up, a Crested Honey Buzzard was gaining height in a thermal and a Black Magpie alighted briefly.

On now to look for a Banded Pitta (pictured right). As soon as we arrived at the stake-out we heard it and after twenty minutes of looking, found it calling from the top of a termite mound. This is probably the most striking bird in Thailand and we had great views for fifteen minutes or more. It was getting rather late but we thought we’d go and try for a Large Wren-Babbler. We told George that this was one of the most skulking birds in the forest and to be prepared to put a lot of effort into getting on to the bird. To our surprise, we found it as soon as it started calling and even got the scope onto it. Great views again.

After lunch we called in at the HQ area to check the flowering trees for sunbirds and flowerpeckers. Sure enough, Van Hasselt’s Sunbird was there as were a few of the more common species.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in an area of the forest used as a bird bath. Plenty of bulbuls showed up including Cream-vented Bulbuls and Olive-winged Bulbuls. A pair of Green Broadbills joined them, a Bamboo Woodpecker perched above us and a Crow-billed Drongo was flitting in and out of sight.

Day 10 - Krabi Mangroves & Khao Nor Chuchi

Due to tides, we’d changed our Krabi mangroves trip to a morning one. We boarded the boat at 7:30 and crossed the main inlet from Krabi pier to the mangroves. We must have seen ten Brown-winged Kingfishers in as many minutes. In the next half an hour we also managed to see Common Kingfisher, Ruddy-Kingfisher, and Collared Kingfisher.

In a side inlet we heard a Mangrove Pitta calling but couldn’t see it. We got off the boat onto a rickety pier and managed to see it calling from distant tree. A Chestnut-Bellied Malkoha worked it’s way through the mangrove trees and a party of Ashy Tailorbirds showed themselves. Rufous-bellied Swallows were hunting near the crags.

Bar-tailed GodwitWe had an hour left so decided to go out to the river mouth to see which waders were around. Common Terns were fishing in the harbour. And each fishing platform in the river mouth had a group of shorebirds on it. We saw Bar-tailed Godwits (pictured right), Whimbrels, Terek Sandpipers, Ruddy Turnstones, Great Knots, a Nordmann’s Greenshank, and Lesser Crested Terns.

After lunch we drove back to Khao Nor Chuchi and went back to the bird bath to see what was around.

Babblerfest! One after another, the babblers came. First Scaly-crowned Babblers, then Chestnut-rumped Babblers, then Rufous-crowned Babblers, and finally a Ferruginous Babbler. A pair of Streak-breasted Woodpeckers kept us company and we also managed to bring in some Grey-cheeked Bulbuls and Yellow-bellied Bulbuls.

Day 11 - Khao Nor Chuchi & Phang Nga Mangrove Park

Our last day. In the morning we walked to the Emerald Pool to enjoy the scenery before the crowds arrived. It was as beautiful as ever. We had so far spared George the infamous Khao Nor Chuchi trails so we walked back along “F” trail. This ill-maintained trail goes from the Blue Pool back to the main road through a variety of forests. It was very quiet as usual but we did see a Fulvous-chested Jungle Flycatcher and a long-tailed brown morph Asian Paradise-Flycatcher.

Back on the main road we called out some Puff-backed Bulbuls and saw a Yellow-eared Spiderhunter.

On our way back to Phuket we stopped off at the Phang Nga Mangrove Park and had great looks at the unbelievable Black-and-Red Broadbill.

After lunch on a deserted beach we dropped George off at the airport.

All in all we’d seen 195 species, George had got 110 lifers and everyone had had a good time. Roll on next year. Click here to see the bird list.