14 November 2007

Carrying on with the Doing A Lot

Birding in Kaeng Krachan National Park, Thailand.
Special thanks to Khun Noom, who took many of the photos in this post.

I am a recent convert to the hobby, pastime -- nay, way of life -- of birdwatching. Whilst procrastinating studying a year-and-a-half ago, I stumbled across a bird blog by the name of birdchick. She made birding sound... interesting, so I attended a free CRD intro to birdwatching and was immediately hooked, and now count many birding blogs under my Favourites. I’ve talked about this elsewhere, but suffice to say that I love birding because it puts me firmly and intimately in nature, where I count myself lucky to observe the trials, triumphs, and play of some of creation’s most marvelous creatures.

Ashy Drongo. Photo: N. Nuttum

Thailand has amazing biodiversity and is home to 10% of the world’s bird species. Clearly, I would have to go birdwatching while here. Forget my own interest in birds; my birdwatching friends would shun me forever if I failed to bring my binoculars (you know who you are).

Greater Flameback Woodpecker - A counterpart to the black back and red head of
our Pileated Woodpecker in N. America (which I have still to see).
Photo: N. Nuttum

Many westerners and “twitchers” go birding to the far corners of Thailand on tours catering exclusively (and expensively) to their needs. Looking for something a little more, ah, affordable, I googled “Thailand” and “Birdwatching”. I was delighted to find that not only was there an established national bird conservation group, but that they were going on a daytrip that very weekend at a very reasonable cost. After establishing that the guide would be conversant in English, I signed on.

We were to meet at a gas station near a skytrain station at the uncivilized hour of 5 am - yes, bare hours after my return from Pattaya. The skytrain doesn’t run that early, so I took a taxi to our rendezvous point. Apparently, taxis don’t run with metres at 4:30 in the morning, either. After being quoted the ridiculous price of 200 B, I “bargained” it down to 100 B (read: looked shocked and started to walk away), still twice as high as it should be.

The taxi driver had limited English but was very keen on practicing it. He took a call on his mobile, speaking rapidly in Thai, but I could tell I was at least one topic of discussion as a couple times he said “farang.” (This happens a lot here – apparently everything I do is noteworthy or very funny. Who knew I was such a comedian?) After hanging up, he explained that his youngest child – the “Baby” – was calling him. Then he politely asked if I was American. “No,” I said. “Canadian.” His eyes lit up and he clasped his hands in a victory salute. “Ah, Canada! Canada Good Guy! Canada Good Guy!” “Yes!” I agreed happily. Then he asked if I liked spicy Thai food, could I speak Thai, did I have babies, and so on, punctuated by frequent gales of giggles. When he dropped me off, he squeezed my hand and said, “Friend! Friend!”

I could not find the gas station, which I’d been told was immediately visible from the steps of the skytrain station. I saw a Shell and an Esso, both open, but no Caltex. I called the trip leader. She told me to walk down the road from the skytrain station. “Which way?” I asked. “Down the street.” “Yes, I understand, but in which direction?” “Down the street. You walk down the street.” This was starting to feel a lot like the day before, only less comical as 25 impatient birders were waiting for me – the adage “the early bird gets the worm” applies as much to birders as it does to birds (that said, while I am frequently still awake in the wee hours, I’ve never gotten up at 3:30 in the morning to go birding – or go anywhere, for that matter. Those who know me understand what a heroic triumph of will this was.).

After walking up and down the street for a good while, I saw someone waving at me across the street from the Caltex, which I imagine would be immediately visible from the skytrain station were it actually lit up and open for business. I had found my rendezvous point. I climbed into the van and settled in for a good couple hours as we drove north to Kaeng Krachan National Park.
Looking for birds.

Kaeng Krachan is Thailand’s largest national park, at over 2,900 km². It is home to a wide variety of wildlife: elephants, leopards, crocodiles, and hundreds of species of birds, including the elusive pitta and treepie, roam this wet and mountainous land blanketed with lush tropical rainforest. It is also a popular weekend camp site; holidaying Thais were in abundance during the park’s first weekend open since its annual rainy season closure.

Watch out for monkeys. Seriously. They leap through trees, bringing brawny branches crashing down.

We had breakfast at a lovely open-air thatch café and were given our bag lunches for the day – wrapped in banana leaves instead of your standard plastic bag. I was the only westerner on the trip; everyone else was Thai, except for a Japanese fellow who spoke Thai. They were very surprised that I had come along and wanted to know how I had found out about it. "Google," I replied.
Many were clearly avid birders, with expensive cameras and scopes, from a good cross-section of ages and genders.
This was the hardest birding I've ever done. It was mostly 90º birding - looking straight up. I learned that when I tilt my head back in a tropical environment, my glasses fog up! We frequently had to step to the side while four-by-fours and pickups barreled down the muddy road, which also kept the birds away. I was hot and sweaty, while dense vegetation and tall, tall trees combined to make the birds very hard to see, at least for me.

Many of the birds I only caught glimpses of. Others, I stared and stared in the direction people were pointing – and saw nothing. That’s often the way it is with birdwatching – a maze of branches and vines until a very small movement or a twitch in the eye brings everything sharply into focus. I wonder how much we miss in life simply because we aren’t paying close enough attention.

Orange-breasted Trogon, front and back.

Photos: N. Nuttum Beautiful bird, eh?
I wouldn't know. I didn't see it.
Maybe because I was looking over here.

Or maybe because I was looking over there.

Photos: N. Nuttum

Although the guide spoke English, she only did so when I asked what we were seeing, so I think I missed a few birds and interesting factoids because I didn't hear or understand when she was pointing them out. This is no reflection on the club – the trip was planned around the interests and needs of a Thai membership and I was a last minute addition. She seemed really good at her job though, spotting birds, talking about them excitedly and imitating their calls.

People were very friendly and did their best to speak to me in English, although one guide would occasionally point to me, say my name, then say something rapidly in Thai to great laughter all round. I suppose I would laugh too if a foreigner in my country insisted on taking a photo of her bag lunch or other such nonsense. One woman assured me that whatever he said, "He's only joking!" Right then. What a relief.

Lunch: Rice, chicken, egg, and cucumber. Mmmm. And biodegradable!

Despite these frustrations, it was lovely to be out of the city, breathe fresh, clean air; and later, see the stars at night. I picked my way across running streams, walked through clouds of multicoloured butterflies

and saw giant squirrels and monkeys playing and crashing through the tree branches. I tried my hand at digiscoping – the blurry Asian barred owlet below. Can you see his glowing yellow eyes?

Every species of bird I saw was brand-new to me. We even had a couple rare finds: the Blue Pitta, a very shy bird that hides in the undergrowth, and the Ferruginous Flycatcher, an uncommon migrant through the area.

Ferruginous Flycatcher. Photo: N. Nuttum

My trip list: asian fairy bluebird (isn’t that a lovely name?), ochraceous bulbul, black-crested bulbul, asian brown flycatcher, striated babbler, gray-headed flycatcher, dark-necked tailor bird, green-billed malkohas, black eagle, paradise flycatcher, ferruginous flycatcher, black-naped monarch, ashy minivet, hill blue flycatcher, blue pitta, blue-throated flycatcher, bronze drongo, ashy drongo, emerald cuckoo, lesser greenleaf bird, greater greenleaf bird, rosy minivet, slender-billed oriole, asian barred owlet, greater flameback woodpecker, and blue-bearded bee-eater (or at least its nest cavity). We also encountered many specimens of that great ambassador of the aves class, the Falling Leaf Bird, which, despite its great ubiquity, is one of the hardest to spot. Can you see it here?

Look closely. Can't see it? Try harder.

We headed back, drank some coffee brewed at the side of the muddy track and ate tangerines as dusk fell, then hit the road for the long drive back to Bangkok, stopping for a meal on the way at a roadside restaurant. We were all very tired. I asked my seat-mate what he'd enjoyed the most from the trip. His answer was one of those quintessential birding moments that remind me of what a lovely pastime it can be. Mr. N was exhausted and hadn't spoken for a while. When I asked him, his face softened and a smile crept across it. "The Blue Pitta," he said.


Next time: Return to Pattaya!


Anonymous said...

Although birding is not really my thing, it sounds like you had a great time. I love activities that are catered for locals, not expensive fake touristy ones. I remember going to the bank with my cousin in Sydney and looking up at all these tropical birds just sitting on the telephone wires-mouth agape. They looked like they should have been in a zoo! My cousin never gaped at crows in Vancouver-funny that. hahaha Keep on posting!

Sarah FS

BT3 said...

Hey Dea:
Great blog! I am green with envy at your Thailand birding adventure!

Enjoyed your scuba cert, too. I think the only thing I MIGHT give up birding for would be snorkeling/scuba diving every day for the rest of my life.

Keep up the blog. You gots a knack fer it, girl!

Gallicissa said...

Very interesting read!
You have seen some good birds despite the odd misses. And that Thai lunch you have displayed tempted me to go thai today.

Dea said...

Thanks! From the looks of your blog, perhaps I should come birding in Sri Lanka one day!