Monday, March 18, 2019

Ko Phayam

Our final week in Thailand and we chose this remote island on the Andaman Sea; off the beaten track, secluded and great value. The journey started with a lift to the centre of Chumphon, where we bought our sleeper tickets for the journey back to Bangkok at the end of the week. From there we took a minivan for 200 baht each which crossed the narrowest point of the Malay Peninsular then went south along the Myanmar border next to the long estuary of the Kraburi river to the border town of Ranong, where we stopped overnight.

The Slow Boat, Ranong to Ko Phayam
A local songthaew for 20 baht each took us to the pier where, because of a very low tide, we had to wait for a transfer to another pier. Thought we were being scammed but it was legitimate and free. The slow boat was 200 baht per person and took an entertaining two and a half hours. It passes vast swathes of mangrove forest and several other islands on the way. In theory the boat also serves one of these islands but to stay on Koh Chang (same name as a better known island in the Gulf of Thailand) you need to get a boat to come out to meet you as it passes. With barely any roads, this would be a real remote island adventure.

Large Flying Fox Pteropus vampyrus
On the southern tip of Koh Chang is the tiny uninhabited island of Koh Thalu. The dense forest on here thinned at the peak where maybe 200 Large Flying Foxes could be seen hanging from trees and flying around. Clearly larger than the nearby Brahminy Kites, these are very impressive bats even at a distance from the boat. I later found a roost of these on Ko Phayam (where this photo was taken) and we could see them from our accommodation as they flew out to feed at dusk.

Birds seen from the crossing included Common Sandpiper, Whimbrel, Oriental Pied Hornbill and a few Pacific Swallows.

At the pier on Ko Phyam we hired a scooter and got ourselves over to The Rasta House set next to a small abandoned rubber plantation close to the southern end of Ao Khao Kwai, the bay on the NW side of the island. Really friendly hosts and a fabulous bungalow high on stilts at a great price meant we were extremely happy here. It was incredibly hot and there was no air conditioning but we'd become quite well acclimatised over the previous 2-3 months and were able to sit on the balcony watching the wildlife and take morning and evening walks down to the beach.

Rasta House

The Spotted Gliding Lizards were particularly entertaining as they flew between the rubber trees. One or two Oriental Pied Hornbills visited often and a pair of Olive-backed Sunbirds were nesting right by the house.

Spotted Gliding Lizard Draco maculatus

Oriental Pied Hornbill Anthracoceros albirostris

Olive-backed Sunbird Cinnyris jugularis

Ao Khao Kwai
From eBird it appears this is a rather underwatched area and there must be potential to find birds, especially during migration seasons. For example there is only one hotspot listed for the island and the last Great-eared Nightjar record is 2002 but these were singing dawn and dusk throughout our stay and seen occasionally. I concentrated my efforts around the extensive intertidal area and adjacent scrub, forest and mangroves at the southwest end of Ao Khao Kwai, also known as Buffalo Beach. This and the other main beach of Ao Yai both had most developments set back from the shore with only a few bars tucked into the edge giving them a really deserted feel.

At low tide the mud flats had armies of small crabs swarming across them and that attracted Pacific Reef-herons, Little Egrets, Striated Herons and Pond Herons, including one or two Chinese Pond Herons coming into breeding plumage. There were some larger crabs too and a curious Box Fish, unfortunately dead.

Land Hermit Crab Coenobita sp. probably rugosus

Horned Ghost Crab Oxypode ceratophthalmus

Horn Nose Boxfish Ostracion rhinorhynchos

A flock of Lesser and Greater Sandplovers were on the flats at times. Some of the Greaters were starting to come into breeding plumage.

Greater Sandplover Charadrius leschenaultii

At the western end is an inlet and the start of a small mangrove forest. Common Sandpiper and Collared Kingfishers were here and a pair of White-bellied Sea-eagles on a nest just on the other side.

Collared Kingfisher Todiramphus chloris

White-bellied Sea-eagle Haliaeetus leucogaster

At the time of our visit the land on the far side of the inlet was cut off and a new bridge, being constructed to link the Moken community who live there with the rest of the island, remained unfinished and abandoned. In 2021, thanks to a Thai charity, a bamboo bridge has been built and Moken children can now attend school in Ko Phayam without have to wade through feet of mud.

Although traditionally nomadic people spending much of their time at sea, many Moken have become more settled in places like this so projects like this are very valuable.

Just before the bridge was the richest area in terms of birdlife. Sandy scrub and a mix of woodland held a lot of interest and there was evidence of the start of migration through here. Oriental Pied Hornbill, Pink-necked Green-pigeon, Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, Dollarbird, Vernal Hanging-parrot, sooty and white-headed Ashy Drongos, Olive-winged Bulbul (plus Red-eyed, Yellow-vented and Streak-eared), Asian Brown Flycatcher, Thick-billed Warbler, an Arctic Warbler type and Brown-throated Sunbird.

Ashy Drongo (Chinese White-faced) Dicrurus leucophaeus [innexus Group]

Olive-winged Bulbul Pycnonotus plumosus

Pink-necked Green-pigeon Treron vernans

No blog about Ko Phayam would be complete without a mention of the cashews. They are everywhere. It fascinated us the first time we saw a cashew tree in SE Asia but this place takes it to another level. The roads are stained with red from the fallen "apples" that get run over and you can come across people processing the nuts.

Although the apple is completely edible (and tastes rather like an actual apple), the nut is contained in a shell that releases a corrosive oil when opened. The process of getting to an edible nut is tricky, potentially unpleasant and labour intensive and each fruit bears just one nut. So the cashew is not a true nut that grows at the end of an apple that isn't a true fruit.

I wouldn't normally include so many general scenes on this mainly wildlife blog but Ko Phayam is possibly one of the most idyllic, beautiful places we've ever visited. The roads are only wide enough for two scooters to pass and the only other vehicles on the island were tiny tractors used to farm the cashews. A chance to return would be very welcome indeed, but we feel extremely fortunate to have been able to spend this time here. I suspect migration time would be fascinating.
 











46 species recorded here:

Spotted Dove
Pink-necked Green-Pigeon
Greater Coucal
Great Eared-Nightjar
Large-tailed Nightjar
Plume-toed Swiftlet
Red-wattled Lapwing
Lesser Sand Plover
Greater Sand Plover
Common Sandpiper
Little Cormorant
Pacific Reef-Heron
Striated Heron
Crested Honey-buzzard
Shikra
Brahminy Kite
White-bellied Sea-Eagle
Brown Boobook
Oriental Pied-Hornbill
White-throated Kingfisher
Collared Kingfisher
Chestnut-headed Bee-eater
Dollarbird
Coppersmith Barbet
Vernal Hanging-Parrot
Black-naped Oriole
Ashy Drongo
Brown Shrike
Large-billed Crow
Dark-necked Tailorbird
Thick-billed Warbler
Barn Swallow
Pacific Swallow
Black-headed Bulbul
Yellow-vented Bulbul
Olive-winged Bulbul
Streak-eared Bulbul
Red-eyed Bulbul
Common Myna
Asian Brown Flycatcher
Oriental Magpie-Robin
White-rumped Shama
Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker
Brown-throated Sunbird
Olive-backed Sunbird
Forest Wagtail
 

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Chumphon

We'd selected our final destination for this trip and on the way decided to stay at a place our old neighbours recommended. The journey involved a taxi (a mate of the owner who turned up late, because he was getting his hair cut, in a battered Toyota with no brakes) to Khanom town, a bus we cuaght by a minute that took us to Surat Thani van station and a local bus to the train station. The train to Chumphon was a delightful 80 pence each for the hot and sweaty three and a half hour journey, and paying attention out of the window netted me Racket-tailed Treepie, Rufous-bellied Eagle, Cinnamon Bittern, Little, Intermediate & Eastern Cattle Egrets, White-breasted Waterhen, White-throated Kingfisher, Greater Coucal, etc. many of those in the Pak Tako region.

Villa Varich was a more up market resort than we are used to. Based south of town on the Tha Taphap river and had bicycles and kayaks for use free of charge. An excellent breakfast was also included so the £16 a night for an en suite air conditioned room was pretty good value. They grew and roasted their own coffee on site, which was a bit wasted on me as I can't stand the stuff but was fascinating to see.


Plenty of common birds about and getting out on bikes among the wet palm groves and farmland increased the variety. We took one trip down river on kayaks and had great views of Black-capped Kingfisher as well as a few White-breasted Waterhens, Striated Heron, etc. Other highlights include Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Grey-headed Swamphen, Purple Heron and Indochinese Roller.

Indochinese Roller Coracias affinis

Crested Honey Buzzard Pernis ptilorhynchus

With photography still proving tricky several birds had to be left unidentified; Swiftlets, Pond Herons, an accipiter and a Prinia all fell into that category along with a typical Cuckoo seen well but with Himalayan and Indian both possible unable to get to species. Another frustration was a Spotted Wood-owl calling often close to the room at night. Attempts to see it were pretty hopeless though as it stayed in a neighbouring property.

At least one lifer fell here though with a few sightings of Vinous-breasted Starling; a bird it's surprising I've not come across before.

Vinous-breasted Starling Acridotheres burmannicus

Other wildlife included a Common Treeshrew, Water Monitors and plenty of butterflies.
 
Blue Glassy Tiger Ideopsis vulgaris

White Tiger Danaus melanippus

Just 37 species identified here:
Lesser Whistling-Duck
Spotted Dove
Greater Coucal
Asian Koel
Cuculus sp.
swiftlet sp.
Grey-headed Swamphen
White-breasted Waterhen
Red-wattled Lapwing
Asian Openbill
Yellow Bittern
Purple Heron
Intermediate Egret
Little Egret
Cattle Egret (Eastern)
pond heron sp.
Striated Heron (Old World)
Crested Honey-buzzard
Shikra
Accipiter sp.
Spotted Wood-Owl (Heard only)
Black-capped Kingfisher
Indochinese Roller
Lineated Barbet
Common Flameback
Black Drongo
Greater Racket-tailed Drongo
Brown Shrike
Large-billed Crow
Dark-necked Tailorbird
prinia sp.
Pacific Swallow
Yellow-vented Bulbul
Streak-eared Bulbul
Asian Pied Starling
Common Myna
Vinous-breasted Starling
Great Myna
Oriental Magpie-Robin
Taiga Flycatcher
Orange-bellied Flowerpecker
Olive-backed Sunbird

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Khanom

Khao Sok had been great but was still stretching the budget a bit so we found much cheaper accommodation on the east coast. Getting to Surat Thani by local bus was straightforward enough but if you aren't going to Koh Samui or Ko Pha Ngan onward travel is challenging. The usual problem of multiple bus stations and touts offering private taxis for anything up to 1400 baht (over £30). We finally managed to find a local bus to Khanom town centre, then got the resort to pick us up from there. Total cost 400 baht, saving around £20, and that can go a long way in Thailand.

As an alternative to the more expensive and popular islands to the north this quiet stretch of coastline is well off the beaten track and for some reason is especially popular with people from Germany. The beaches are long and sandy and the water warm, but it's as well to be cautious swimming here. I got a very painful jellyfish sting on the arm here and, with Box Jellyfish, while rare, very much a possibility in these waters, it was uncomfortable and nerve racking for a short time.



That aside, our cheap, comfortable wooden bungalow here suited us very nicely, the birding was excellent and we stayed about a week (when the place became fully booked and we were forced to move on). The birding was excellent.

Among the common birds were plenty of Brahminy Kites, Blue-tailed Bee-eaters, Indochinese Roller, Lineated Barbets, Ashy Minivets etc. Soon had my first views of Common Flameback and they went on to show very well at times.


Good views of a Black Baza here were my first for years and this rather poor photo is the only record I have of a flyover Painted Stork, something of a scarcity here I think. Large-tailed Nightjar heard in the evenings.
Painted Stork Mycteria leucocephala

One of the main attractions turned out to be the wetland areas running parallel with the coastal strip just a few tens of meters inland. A few areas of flooding and pools were visible, easiest from the bridge just east of the town centre but also from fields opposite Khanom Cabana Beach Resort along the beach road to the south. There may be other ways of viewing the area from tracks either running west from the coastal road or east from the road south from the town. There's also a minor road to the south linking those two main roads but viewing from here was less productive.

Only one other lifer revealed itself here with several sightings of Cinnamon Bittern. A much more secretive bird than Yellow Bittern (also seen here a few times). Other highlights here were Lesser Whistling Duck, Pink-necked Green-pigeon, Grey-headed Swamphen, Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Wood Sandpiper, Oriental Pratincole, Purple Heron, Black-winged Kite and Black-browed Reed Warbler. Almost all proved too difficult to photograph with my equipment sadly.

Little Cormorant Microcarbo niger
A scooter proved very useful here, for quicker access to the wetlands, trips into town for supplies and a couple of excursions to nearby areas in the hills to the south. A couple of waterfalls in the hills were fun with cool water at both but few birds of note.

We also went up a fairly arduous steep road to Dat Fa Mountain viewpoint, which proved quite a strain for the little scooter. Dogs kept us from the very top unfortunately but we did see Crested Serpent Eagle, Square-tailed Drongo-cuckoo and Plume-toed Swiftlets.

Finally one morning I saw this sadly deceased (non-venomous) Indochinese Rat Snake by the roadside.
Indochinese Rat Snake Ptyas korros

Total of 65 species:
Lesser Whistling-Duck
Spotted Dove
Zebra Dove
Pink-necked Green-Pigeon
Greater Coucal
Asian Koel
Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo
Large-tailed Nightjar
Plume-toed Swiftlet
Germain's Swiftlet
House Swift
Asian Palm-Swift
Common Moorhen
Grey-headed Swamphen
White-breasted Waterhen
Black-winged Stilt
Red-wattled Lapwing
Pheasant-tailed Jacana
Wood Sandpiper
Oriental Pratincole
Asian Openbill
Painted Stork
Little Cormorant
Yellow Bittern
Cinnamon Bittern
Purple Heron
Great White Egret
Intermediate Egret
Little Egret
Cattle Egret
Chinese Pond Heron
Black-winged Kite
Black Baza
Crested Serpent-Eagle
Shikra
Brahminy Kite
Common Kingfisher
White-throated Kingfisher
Blue-tailed Bee-eater
Indochinese Roller
Lineated Barbet
Common Flameback
Ashy Minivet
Black-naped Oriole
Common Iora
Malaysian Pied-Fantail
Black Drongo
Brown Shrike
Large-billed Crow
Common Tailorbird
Black-browed Reed Warbler
Barn Swallow
Pacific Swallow
Yellow-vented Bulbul
Streak-eared Bulbul
Common Myna
Great Myna
Asian Brown Flycatcher
Oriental Magpie-Robin
Orange-bellied Flowerpecker
Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker
Brown-throated Sunbird
Olive-backed Sunbird
Baya Weaver
Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Khao Sok National Park

It hurt a bit to bypass Ao Phang Nga National Park (and its dramatic karst pinnacles made famous in The Man With The Golden Gun) but once again our budget held us back, so we took a scenic, but typically chaotic, minivan journey the three hours to the much more accessible Khao Sok National Park. At 300 baht, entry here is cheaper than most of the big national parks but still quite a lot for us. However there were free nature trails and plenty of birds in the countryside close to the accommodation and plenty of excellent places to eat so it was a good choice to hang out here for a few days.


A friend visited here around this time and saw Leopard just outside the park. Taking one of the night tours into the park might be worthwhile here but I stuck to the nature trails and dawn visits to the NP on foot. It was on my first visit to trail #2 that I found my first lifer here; a pair of Chestnut-winged Babblers nest building and displaying. The pair were calling a lot, carrying large leaves and visiting the nest.


Chestnut-winged Babbler Cyanoderma erythropterum

Also here were 2 Eastern Crowned Warblers, one singing, and in the general area Crimson Sunbird, Crested Honey Buzzard and Little Spiderhunter, an Orange-headed Thrush and my first Spectacled Bulbul
Crimson Sunbird Aethopyga siparaja

Orange-headed Thrush Geokichla citrina

Crested Honey Buzzard Pernis ptilorhynchus

Spectacled Bulbul Ixodia erythropthalmos

Khao Sok National Park

My first walk into the National Park took the wide trail west before first light accompanied by the songs of White-handed Gibbons but I was only to manage fleeting glimpses of these later. At Station 1 an Orange-headed Thrush showed very well as it started to get light and at Station 3 an adult male Siberian Blue Robin. Taking a short side trail to the river shortly after this got me brief views of a noisy Chestnut-naped Forktail, the first of a series of frustrating, unsatisfactory views. The next being a flock of 5 all dark hornbills flushed from a large tree that can only have been Bushy-crested Hornbill. Then another hornbill flew over showing all dark wings, short tail and white or pale head which combined with significant wing noise makes it Wreathed Hornbill.

Things soon picked up though and at Station 8 had great views of a female Blue-banded Kingfisher; the 10th species of Kingfisher on this trip.

Blue-banded Kingfisher Alcedo euryzona

As well as the regular Black-headed, Black-crested and Red-eyed Bulbuls I picked out an Ochraceous Bulbul.
Ochraceous Bulbul Alophoixus ochraceus

A good five hours along this 5km stretch of the park and just 24 species recorded so to get 5 lifers was remarkable. I returned in the afternoon and walked the collapsing high concrete steps and walkways north of the entrance but found very little else of note except 2 Rufous-fronted Babblers and another Siberian Blue Robin and Ochraceous Bulbul.

Spent the rest of the few days we had here on the trails, plantations and river outside the park. Highlights included Chestnut-breasted Malkoha, Abbott's Babblers, Blue Whistling Thrush and Vernal Hanging Parrots.

Vernal Hanging Parrot Loriculus vernalis

It was great to get some rain while we were here and afterwards bird activity was hugely increased. It also brought down a large number of swifts, although identification remained difficult with both Cook's and Pacific possible among the abundant Germain's Swiftlets. Those white-rumped fork-tailed birds seen well enough appeared to be Pacific Swift. On the final evening a small all dark typical nightjar was hawking over the open ground and could only be Grey Nightjar.

Non-avian wildlife was pretty good here too. Apart from the Gibbons there were Long-tailed and Southern Pig-tailed Macaques. Some of the rest are pictured below.

Common Palmking Amathusia phidippus


Emma Grey's Forest Lizard Calotes emma

Long-horned Orb Weaver Macracantha arcuata

Including Lesser Whistling Duck and Crested Serpent-eagle seen on the bus heading east when we left I recorded 56 species here in four days.
Lesser Whistling-Duck
Spotted Dove
Greater Coucal
Chestnut-breasted Malkoha
Green-billed Malkoha
Grey Nightjar
Germain's Swiftlet
Pacific Swift
White-breasted Waterhen
Red-wattled Lapwing
Striated Heron
Crested Honey-buzzard
Crested Serpent-Eagle
Bushy-crested Hornbill
Wreathed Hornbill
Common Kingfisher
Blue-banded Kingfisher
White-throated Kingfisher
Vernal Hanging-Parrot
Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike
Common Iora
Large-billed Crow
Common Tailorbird
Dark-necked Tailorbird
Pacific Swallow
Black-headed Bulbul
Spectacled Bulbul
Black-crested Bulbul
Stripe-throated Bulbul
Yellow-vented Bulbul
Streak-eared Bulbul
Red-eyed Bulbul
Ochraceous Bulbul
Eastern Crowned Warbler
Yellow-bellied Warbler
Pin-striped Tit-Babbler
Chestnut-winged Babbler
Rufous-fronted Babbler
Abbott's Babbler
Common Myna
Orange-headed Thrush
Asian Brown Flycatcher
Oriental Magpie-Robin
White-rumped Shama
Siberian Blue Robin
Blue Whistling-Thrush
Chestnut-naped Forktail
Orange-bellied Flowerpecker
Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker
Ruby-cheeked Sunbird
Olive-backed Sunbird
Crimson Sunbird
Little Spiderhunter
Asian Fairy-bluebird
Eurasian Tree Sparrow
Grey Wagtail