Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Identifying Thailand Birds Challenge Birders
January 05, 2024
By Steve Grinley
Our friend Linda is planning a spring trip to Thailand. She knew we had traveled there before, so she sent us a copy of her proposed itinerary for us to review and to comment on. Margo pulled out all her photos and I pulled up the columns I wrote about our winter of 2010 trip. The fond memories are worth sharing again after all these years:
Rick Heil, Jeremiah Trimble, Margo and me, spent sixteen intense days of dawn to dusk birding with a guide, Nick Upton, a Brit who has lived and birded in Thailand for the past thirteen years. After twenty-seven hours of traveling to Bangkok, we took a plane the first morning to Chaing Mai where we met Nick and his wife, and we set out in a Toyota van for our adventure.
The first week, we visited three National Parks north of Chaing Mai, near the Mayamar border. We did a lot of hiking in the mountains and I found out quickly how out-of-shape I was. We then headed south, stopping at two more National Parks as well as other birding areas (on flat terrain), on the way back to Bangkok. We then headed south of Bangkok to do some shore-birding, in quest of the spoon-billed sandpiper!
The birds were almost all new for Margo and me – except for rock pigeons, house sparrows, cattle egrets and a few shorebird and duck species. Otherwise, we were like beginners. Despite doing some studying ahead of time, we weren’t prepared for looking at birds that we had NO idea what we were looking at.
It was a humbling, and at times very frustrating, experience of just trying to FIND the birds in the thick bamboo forests or in the canopy of trees 150 feet above us! I had all I could do to describe the bird, let alone try to figure out what family or species it might be. And for me who likes to “bird by ear” and identify birds by sound, I had no clue as to what I was hearing!
Nick was an excellent birder. He knew all the birds by sound and often knew exactly where the sound was coming from. He could pinpoint birds and did his best to describe where in the clump of tangles to look. He sometimes even knew which bush to look in for a particular species.
As the tour went on, our frustration eased as we could identify a few of the more common birds and even a few songs. After a week or so, we began to recognize families of birds in which to classify some of what we saw. It didn’t help that so many of the birds had three or four-part names: white-crested laughingthrush or white-browed scimitar babbler. It is no wonder that I especially liked the dollarbird and the cutia.
I could spend columns writing about the experience, but I thought I would just bullet a few of the highlights that we experienced during those sixteen days:
* The sound of Great Hornbills flying overhead. Hidden by the thick canopy, they sounded like B-52 Bombers with their enormous wingspan. It was also thrilling to see the male feeding a female who was confined to the nest cavity, having been “plastered” in after her egg laying for protection.
* Trying see the tail-less pygmy wren babbler as it crept along the thick forest undergrowth singing its three whistle “three-blind-mice” song. We crept along right behind it.
* Seeing our first purple and scarlet-backed sunbirds. All the sunbirds (the larger, hummingbird replacements of Asia and Africa) in their brilliant iridescent colors, were stunning.
* Watching the beautiful white-capped redstart (or river chat), rufous-bellied niltava, and black-breasted thrush all coming to a feast of mealworms at the Ban Luang Resort
* Seeing not one, but five cutia. This large nuthatch-like bird, which is difficult to find, was first spotted by Margo.
* The nine woodpeckers of Mae Ping National Park, including the larger-than-pileated white-bellied woodpecker and the even larger great slaty woodpecker. We bush-wacked through the woods for views of the latter.
* Watching hundreds of thousands of wrinkle-lipped bats spiraling out of a cave near Khao Yai National Park at dusk. A shikra (hawk) waited at the cave entrance and picked off its evening meal. The bats billowed into the air like smoke for more than ten minutes, and filled the distant skies.
* Crawling over a hundred-foot serpent to see the limestone wren babbler (it’s a long story).
* Watching thousands of fruit bats, the size of night herons, leaving their mangrove roost near Pak Thale and filling the skies like a scene out of the Wizard of Oz.
* Hearing the moaning wail of gibbons through the early morning forest.
* Feeling our van slide dangerously toward the cliff as we tried to navigate a steep, gravel-filled road up the mountain in Kaeng Kiechan National Park. (p.s. We survived.)
* Seeing the rufous-browed flycatcher was memorable, because after two weeks I finally spotted a bird first, before the others. Of course, I still had no idea what I as looking at!
* Seeing the spoon-billed sandpipers among the other great shorebirds (and familiar shorebird families) at Pak Thale. And running into David Sibley, half way around the world, who was also there for the spoon-billed sandpiper!