Text and photos by: Peter Ericsson
To visit Hala Bala has long been a desire of mine. Where else would one go to see plenty of Hornbills in a pristine and lush lowland rainforest in Thailand? Yes, Taman Negarah in Malaysia is a good option but for me being essentially a Thai birder, there is no real choice.
The park has been open to the public for 7 years now. Prior to that, it was a stronghold for insurgents and not a very safe place to visit. Only problem these days is the parks remote location at the border of Malaysia in the province of Naratiwat. (Naratiwat does have a domestic airport).
It so worked out that Christopher Hines, a top birder from Namibia, was in the country and agreed to visit the park together. We met up in Phuket and drove for almost 9 hours till the little town of Sungai Koh Lok, a busy border town hosting many hotels.
We arrived early, (no park fee was required), went strait to the research center where a group of Thai birders were gathered along with some folks involved with the Hornbill project here in Thailand. Upon our arrival we were immediately greeted by half a dozen Wrinkled Hornbills! What a welcome! (the birders said they hadn’t seen these birds for 7 consecutive days). This Hornbill simply is not given true justice in any fieldguide. It needs to be seen! The bird was previously thought to be gone from Thai forests but is proven to breed at Bala.
We were told of a fruiting tree further on down the road and so went strait for it. A flock of perhaps 10 Helmeted Hornbills were feeding on figs high in the canopy along with another flock of Rhinoceros Hornbills! Within a few minutes of entering the park I had already claimed my two remaining Hornbills, Wrinkled and Helmeted! Wow! I particulary took an affinity to Helmeted with its enormous tail, outstanding call and mysterious looking facial figure.
We hung around there for some time and went along with the Thai birders to an old gold mine a couple of kilometers outside the park. Here was some fabulous birding in a serene setting. It started out with a pair of Black-Red Broadbills, always a treat. I had my first Black-bellied Malkoha, which is surprisingly similar to Green-billed (smaller and shorter tail ofcourse). A Blue-banded Kingfisher was seen by many in the stream. I missed it as I was busy observing a Chestnut-naped Forktail and then later on a Scarlet Sunbird, a rare specie in Thailand. Then at exactly 13:03 I had my very first male Scarlet-breasted Flowerpecker in full view. Gorgeous bird with an outstanding breast in bright scarlet. Another Thai birder was with me and we both ‘jumped for joy’. This is a much sought after Flowerpecker in the country. We enjoyed lunch at the stream and I took the opportunity to refresh myself in the cool waters.
Later in the afternoon we went to Poo Khao Tong Temple (golden mountain temple) just outside the park. Here is supposedly a good place for Malaysian Rail Babbler. We didn’t see the Babbler but many other things such as; Scaly-breasted Bulbul, Spotted Fantail (southern specialty), Silver-rumped Swifts, Brown Fulvettas, Grey-bellied Bulbul and many more.
We inquired about lodging in the park and were given a simple but clean room for 300 Baht. Dinner was cooked in good Thai fashion (not adapted to suit western taste) and the local rangers, their families and staff, treated us very warmly.
The Bat Hawk behind the research center was not seen perched by us but I did see it in flight one morning.
Next day we went down from the research center, where, by the way, Black-thighed Falconet is easy, to an area with two nature trails. The first one being only 500 meters long and more open vegetation. The second one further down to the left, crossing a huge fallen tree, is 2 km and takes you inside of just outstandingly beautiful tropical rainforest.
I entered this longer path, stayed focused on Babblers as I find them appealing.
Around noon I sat down for a little break at the first Sala (resting house) some 900 meters into the trail when something truly magical happened. I was contemplating the beauty of the place, feeling the presence of the Almighty and full of awe of the wonder of Creation when I suddenly saw a large fern sway heavily. I figured it must be a heavier bird causing the movement so decided to get up from the bench. I walked 10 meters and the loud call from a Crested Jay bursted forth from up high. Then, as out of nowhere, a female GIANT PITTA, appeared on a sun drenched fern about a meter above ground. I almost couldn’t believe my eyes as I previously only have dreamed of such an encounter. The bird perched for a few moments and then headed into the forest. It honestly took me many minutes to ‘get back to normal’ after this experience. I truly felt touched by God’s mighty hand in a supernatural way!
What time was it? Yes, incredibly so, 13:03 PM over again. The magic minute!
Most of the birding was done on an individual basis so I am only relating what I personally saw in the park. However, Christopher had Finch’s Bulbul twice in here and also a juvenile Black-White Bulbul. He also picked up several other species I never caught on to. The Babblers I positively saw in here were; Chestnut-winged, Short-tailed, Moustached, Rufous-crowned and Black-throated.
As we were about to leave before lunch on our 3rd day, a flock of 6 White-crowned Hornbills came to bid us farewell at the research center. This is another very interesting looking bird! These birds came down much lower then the Helmeted and Rhinoceros Hornbills and apparently come down to feed on the forest floor at times.
The park has another part called Hala but is not easily reached from Bala (half a day by 4 wheel drive). Better reached from Yala province. Bala is mainly real lowland forest with a maximum altitude of 500 meters. Hala on the other hand has more montane avi fauna with its tallest peak at 1500 meters.
Many birds were heard throughout and the must intriguing call must go to Helmeted Hornbill with its long calls of hoops going into ke-hoop and finally bursting into a hysterical laughter.
We drove all the way to Morakot Resort at Bahn Tiew, Klong Tom, Krabi for a try at the Gurney’s site in the morning. I decide to do some general birding along B,C and D trails since I have seen the bird a couple of years back but still want to see Banded Pitta.
The forest here was it usual self, very quiet. I then thought I’d give it a try at the famous U trail and entered here at 9:45. I walked at a brisk speed until I heard a male Gurney’s Pitta call around Q60. I realized I was getting very close to the bird and so stood very still. The bird kept calling but a bit further away from me. Then the female started answering with it’s more churring call from somewhere behind me. I had only been in the trail for 20 minutes but figured ‘why not, miracles do happen so why not now?’. I shot up a little prayer and shortly after that the male was turning around coming back towards me, still calling. Then it hopped in to full view and for the next 3-4 minutes I enjoyed seeing this incredibly handsome and colorful male filling its lungs with air and letting out its call to his mate. Not only was the blue very brightly blue, the yellow shining golden but even the black on the belly was intensely black. Simply gorgeous!
If it weren’t for this bird I’d give the park a miss though. Compared to Bala it just doesn’t hold forth water. My only new bird for the day was a Black Magpie.
We then drove towards Phuket airport and managed a stop at the Mangrove National Park at Pangnga between 2-3 pm. Immediately the Mangrove Pitta was calling. After some search a bird flew in right in front of me and gave me my 3rd Pitta for the trip. Other good birds here was White-bellied Sea Eagle, Black-Red Broadbill and Streak-breasted Woodpecker.
Following is a list of what I could positively identify.
Crested Serpent Eagle
Blyth’s Hawk Eagle
Bat Hawk Lifer
Blue-crowned Hanging Parrot
Banded Bay Cuckoo Heard
Black-bellied Malkoha - Lifer
Red-beared Bee-eater - Heard
Wrinkled Hornbill - Lifer
Helmeted Hornbill - Lifer
Gold-whiskered Barbet - Heard
Rufous Piculet - Lifer
Buff-rumped Woodpecker- Lifer
Black-Yellow Broadbill - Heard
Giant Pitta Lifer
White-bellied Swiftlet Lifer
Lesser Green Leafbird
Greater Racket-tailed Drongo
Asian Fairy Bluebird
Crested Jay Heard
Sultan Tit (southern race with a black crest)
Black-throated Babbler - Lifer
Striped Tit Babbler
Brown Fulvetta - Lifer
Spotted Fantail Lifer
Asian Paradise Flycatcher
Long-billed Spiderhunter - Lifer
Scarlet-breasted Flowerpecker - Lifer
Thanks to Peter!