Thursday, February 27, 2020

Ayutthaya again

Decisions, decisions. It was always our intention to return to Cambodia after our Gift Of Happiness week but with the pandemic gathering pace we thought it best to weigh up our options. And, with a direct (if rather long and mosquitos ridden) train from Udon Thani, where better to stop and take stock than Ayutthaya. 

We stayed again at the Atthitara by the Chao Phraya river in the SE of the historical park area. For an account of our previous stay see here. Once again it proved a great base for exploring some of the wilder parts of the park. Although a similar range of species seen this time there were some significant differences.

A Brown-backed Needletail on the first day was a first for me in Thailand; I've only previous seen them a few years ago in Cambodia. Possibly overlooked but this very large swift has quite a patchy distribution across the region and is pretty dramatic. Cinnamon Bittern and Bronze-winged Jacana were also additions. I was surprised not to see any Ashy Drongos but made up for it with Hair-crested Drongo.






Hair-crested Drongo Dicrurus hottentottus

Kingfishers were once again well represented, although I failed to find any Black-capped this year. Stork-billed looks to be reliable in the western part of the park and Pied Kingfishers active on the main river again. Ayutthaya also remains the only place I've come across Small Minivet.

Stork-billed Kingfisher Pelargopsis capensis

Regular winter visitors included Thick-billed, Dusky & Yellow-browed Warblers, Taiga Flycatcher, and Asian Brown Flycatcher.

Little Cormorant Microcarbo niger

Red-wattled Lapwing Vanellus indicus

Asian Water Monitor Varanus salvator

While here we decided we would travel to Chiang Mai and extend our Thai visas to cover the rest of our stay, then move to Pai; we'd never been here but had it recommended a number of times. So after a few days we took the sleeper north. It's fairly new, smart berths were pretty comfortable. While waiting for the train we watched a few Lyle's Flying Foxes flying around a large tree close by, illuminated by the station lights.



60 species in total
Shikra
Hair-crested Drongo
Black-naped Monarch
Green-billed Malkoha
Grey Heron
Common Kingfisher
Pied Kingfisher
Blue-tailed Bee-eater
Small Minivet
Asian Brown Flycatcher
Brown-throated Sunbird
Rock Dove
Red Collared Dove
Spotted Dove
Zebra Dove
Greater Coucal
Asian Koel
Plaintive Cuckoo
Brown-backed Needletail
Germain's Swiftlet
Asian Palm-Swift
White-breasted Waterhen
Red-wattled Lapwing
Bronze-winged Jacana
Asian Openbill
Little Cormorant
Indian Cormorant
Yellow Bittern
Cinnamon Bittern
Great White Egret
Little Egret
Cattle Egret
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Eurasian Hoopoe
Stork-billed Kingfisher
White-throated Kingfisher
Indochinese Roller
Coppersmith Barbet
Lineated Barbet
Black-naped Oriole
Common Iora
Malaysian Pied-Fantail
Black Drongo
Brown Shrike
Large-billed Crow
Common Tailorbird
Plain Prinia
Thick-billed Warbler
Barn Swallow
Streak-eared Bulbul
Yellow-browed Warbler
Dusky Warbler
Common Myna
Great Myna
Oriental Magpie-Robin
Taiga Flycatcher
Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker
Olive-backed Sunbird
Scaly-breasted Munia
Plain-backed Sparrow

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Udon Thani & Ban Chiang

Suan Luang

Nam Tok had been brilliant and it was a wrench to leave, especially when I got a photo of Grey-headed Parakeets that had arrived the day after we left, sent by our neighbours who had stayed on for a few more days! But we had to go as we were due to meet up with our friends at the Gift Of Happiness charity in Bangkok. First we spent a night in the Suan Luang district of Bangkok. Just another suburb but there's everything you need in places like this, we got an excellent a/c room for £14 and ate well for under a fiver for two. I took a walk to a nearby mall to change back some Vietnamese Dong and the route took me along a concrete walkway along one of the many klongs (canals). Even in this unremarkable part of the city I saw Plaintive Cuckoo, Little Cormorant, Common Kingfisher, Brown Shrike, Plain Prinia and Black-browed Reed Warbler and more.

Udon Thani

Common Tuft Bearing Longhorn Aristobia approximator
The following day we travelled with the charity to the provincial town of Udon Thani in the northeast of the country near the Lao border to put on a few shows and distribute donations at rural schools in the area. See here for a full report on this roadtrip.

Again wildlife took a back seat but I did get a distant photo of this huge insect from the hotel balcony; the Common Tuft Bearing Longhorn. Also from the balcony, watched evening roost flights of Black Drongos and mid-sized bats passing at dusk. Asian Barred Owlet sang during the day and other birds seen here included Ashy Minivets, 1 Thick-billed Warbler, 1 Yellow-browed Warbler, Black-naped Monarch, Verditer Flycatcher and Brown-throated Sunbird. Swiftlets were a challenge here with some birds showing characteristics of Himalayan Swiftlet but most looked like Germain's Swiftlet.

One afternoon we visited the Ho Chi Minh Historical Park 12km west of the town. This curious shrine to the Vietnamese revolutionary leader's 3 month sojourn here in the late 1920s includes a small museum and some reconstructed houses in the style of the time. Surprisingly interesting and interpreted by an enthusiastic guide.



Ban Chaing

Being so close to a world heritage site proved too much of a temptation so when work with the charity was over we moved to a small resort in the SE of the city for a couple of nights and hired a car and driver to take us the 50km east to the site.

UNESCO World Heritage site number 76 for me is a museum centred on an extensive area of archaeological discoveries (mainly pottery) documenting evidence of early civilizations dating back around 4,000 years. There is also a preserved dig site a short way from the museum. A fairly underwhelming and low key place with few visitors and even less wildlife during our visit.




Back in Udon Thani I headed to the station to get the tickets for the train to Ayutthaya, passing a Buddhist temple procession and, at the Chinese-Thai Cultural Centre, some dragon dancing. The message of solidarity with Wuhan, where the pandemic had so far hit hardest, was a poignant symbol of what was still to come global.



Saturday, February 15, 2020

Nam Tok

With our Vietnamese visa running out it was decision time. We weren't due back in Thailand for another two weeks and had intended to return overland via Cambodia. However due to Chinese New Year and Tết (the week long Vietnamese equivalent) trains back to Saigon were fully booked and with the virus gaining pace we felt it was best to fly back to Thailand and spend the time within reach of Bangkok before we were due to meet up with the Gift Of Happiness charity.


So we managed to get a daytime sleeper train back to Da Nang where we spent a very pleasant evening and enjoyed the fire, water and music display from the dragon bridge. The following morning we took a ridiculously cheap flight to Bangkok's Don Muang airport and a old train costing a few pence into the centre of town. I'm really going to miss these wonderful third class trains rattling through the scruffy suburbs and pulling into the atmospheric Hualamphong terminus when services migrate to the new hub at Bang Sue Grand Station. The smiles, the small acts of kindness and the food made us realise how much we'd missed Thailand.

We'd decided a trip up to the national parks beyond Kanchanaburi would be a great way to spend the time before we had to be back in Bangkok, so we stayed at a slightly weird Air BnB not far from Thonburi station and (by the skin of our teeth) caught the early train to Nam Tok in the morning. This train is a great experience on many levels; the old third class rolling stock, food and drink sellers, the bridges and cuttings built on the bodies of prisoners of war and, perhaps surprisingly, the wildlife.

I kept a list of birds seen from this journey, which takes almost 5 hours to do the 100 or so miles, and clocked up 50 species. Among the highlights were a Ruddy-breasted Crake flushed by the train, Lesser Coucal, Purple Heron, Black Baza, Black-Winged Kite, Crested Serpent Eagle, Bronze-winged Jacana and a Greenshank as well as the usual White-throated Kingfisher, Indochinese Roller, Green, Blue-tailed and Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters.

We'd been to Nam Tok the year before but we only took a day trip beyond Kanchanaburi so we were looking forward to exploring a bit more. In the end we liked the location so much we stayed put for the whole 11 days. Comfortable, affordable place to stay, excellent wildlife right outside the door with walks into good habitat, a cheap place to eat nearby with outstanding food and shops selling fresh fruit and veg near enough. The friendly owners kept showering us with gifts of fruit from the garden as well.


While here we visited the nearby waterfalls, hired a scooter and paid homage to the nightmare of the Death Railway at 'Hellfire Pass' and had an exciting, unguided walk through some very dark caves. If you are in this area the Hellfire Pass memorial is breath-taking and very moving. Well worth the visit.

Crested Honey Buzzard Pernis ptilorhynchus





So what about the wildlife? The gardens of the Baanrai Saiyoknoi resort and the adjacent palm plantation and wooded hills were a rich source of bird life and I found 69 species at the resort during our stay. Often heard Banded Bay Cuckoo, Large-tailed Nightjar and Red-wattled Lapwing but didn't see them at all. Raptors were pretty good with Crested Honey Buzzard, Grey-faced Buzzard, Crested Goshawk and Shikra all regular.

An Asian Barred Owlet sang a lot of the time and I eventually located it one day in a large tree close to our bungalow. The way the whole of its body shudders as it sings is amazing and the little tail wiggle at the end adorable.


 Asian barred owlet Glaucidium cuculoides

Chestnut-headed Bee-eater Merops leschenaulti

Blue-bearded Bee-eater Nyctyornis athertoni
Chestnut-headed Bee-eater was expected but seeing Blue-bearded Bee-eater was great. My first in Thailand. Coppersmith, Lineated and Green-eared Barbets were all vocal but rarely seen. Among the expected smaller birds were Thick-billed Warbler, Two-barred Warbler, Puff-throated Babblers, Verditer, Indochinese and Hill Blue Flycatchers. Nice to see Ruby-cheeked Sunbird but the stars were the White-browed Scimitar-babblers, which showed very well at times but were more often heard and a small number of Pin-tailed Parrotfinches.







Pin-tailed Parrotfinch Erythrura prasina



White-browed Scimitar-babbler Pomatorhinus schisticeps

Yellow-bellied Warbler Abroscopus superciliaris
White-browed Scimitar-babblers were also at Hellfire Pass along with Puff-throated Babbler, Variable Limestone Babbler, Two-barred and Yellow-bellied Warblers, Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher, Racket-tailed Treepie, Striated Swallow, Crested Treeswift and (still only heard) Banded Bay Cuckoo.

We also visited the LAWA Caves on the west side of the Khwae Noi river; a 'self-guided', unlit system that was surprisingly impressive. Very glad we remembered to carry a torch. Had excellent views of a Blue Whistling Thrush here as well as Variable Limestone Babbler and Puff-throated Babbler.

There are only two trains a day back to Bangkok. The first is a very early departure and the second arrives a bit later than we'd like so we caught the later train back to Kanchanaburi and stayed the night there. We then took the early train from there the next day giving ourselves another two hours in bed. Love Kanchanaburi but didn't encounter any new birds during our short stay close to the famed bridge.

The train back to Bangkok was once again entertaining with Grey-headed Swamphen, Whiskered Tern and Chestnut-tailed Starling all seen on the way.

Black-hooded Oriole Oriolus xanthornus

Brown Shrike Lanius cristatus

Hair-crested Drongo Dicrurus hottentottus

Hill Blue Flycatcher Cyornis whitei

Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops

Indochinese Blue Flycatcher Cyornis sumatrensis

Thick-billed Warbler Arundinax aedon

Zebra Dove Geopelia striata




110 species in total including those seen from the train journeys 
Red Junglefowl
Rock Dove
Red Collared Dove
Spotted Dove
Zebra Dove
Greater Coucal
Lesser Coucal
Green-billed Malkoha
Asian Koel
Banded Bay Cuckoo
Large-tailed Nightjar
Germain's Swiftlet
Asian Palm-Swift
Crested Treeswift
Grey-headed Swamphen
White-breasted Waterhen
Ruddy-breasted Crake
Black-winged Stilt
Red-wattled Lapwing
Bronze-winged Jacana
Common Greenshank
Whiskered Tern
Asian Openbill
Little Cormorant
Purple Heron
Great White Egret
Intermediate Egret
Little Egret
Cattle Egret
Striated Heron
Black-winged Kite
Crested Honey-buzzard
Black Baza
Crested Serpent-Eagle
Grey-faced Buzzard
Crested Goshawk
Shikra
Asian Barred Owlet
Eurasian Hoopoe
White-throated Kingfisher
Blue-bearded Bee-eater
Green Bee-eater
Blue-tailed Bee-eater
Chestnut-headed Bee-eater
Indochinese Roller
Coppersmith Barbet
Green-eared Barbet
Lineated Barbet
Black-naped Oriole
Black-hooded Oriole
Ashy Woodswallow
Common Iora
Great Iora
Malaysian Pied-Fantail
Black Drongo
Ashy Drongo
Bronzed Drongo
Hair-crested Drongo
Greater Racket-tailed Drongo
Black-naped Monarch
Brown Shrike
Racket-tailed Treepie
Large-billed Crow
Grey-headed Canary-Flycatcher
Common Tailorbird
Dark-necked Tailorbird
Thick-billed Warbler
Barn Swallow
Striated Swallow
Black-crested Bulbul
Red-whiskered Bulbul
Sooty-headed Bulbul
Stripe-throated Bulbul
Yellow-vented Bulbul
Streak-eared Bulbul
Yellow-browed Warbler
Dusky Warbler
Two-barred Warbler
Yellow-bellied Warbler
Pin-striped Tit-Babbler
White-browed Scimitar-Babbler
Puff-throated Babbler
Variable Limestone Babbler
Black-collared Starling
Asian Pied Starling
Chestnut-tailed Starling
Common Myna
Great Myna
Asian Brown Flycatcher
Oriental Magpie-Robin
White-rumped Shama
Hill Blue Flycatcher
Indochinese Blue Flycatcher
Verditer Flycatcher
Blue Whistling-Thrush
Taiga Flycatcher
Blue Rock Thrush
Amur Stonechat
Thick-billed Flowerpecker
Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker
Ruby-cheeked Sunbird
Purple Sunbird
Olive-backed Sunbird
Blue-winged Leafbird
Scaly-breasted Munia
White-rumped Munia
Pin-tailed Parrotfinch
Eurasian Tree Sparrow
Grey Wagtail
Paddyfield Pipit

Saturday, February 01, 2020

Huế

Took the journey to Huế from Hoi An by train via Da Nang; a comfortable, scenic 3 hour ride in pretty poor weather and the only birds to show were not identifiable from the train. Greeted on arrival at Huế station by cartel taxis wanting ₫200,000 (about £7 for less than 2km along a dead straight road) so we walked the 25 minutes in increasing rain and arrived at the hotel like drowned rats. Perhaps that's why the staff were a bit miserable but it was more likely because the boss wasn't around and they are just like that. Took a while to persuade them to a) clean the room and b) provide us with more than a single duvet! Welcome to Huế!

Otherwise the room was cheap, very comfortable and high up with a superb view across the Perfume River to the Imperial City on the other side. Met up once again with Phil & Carol who had travelled ahead of us and were leaving to push further north the following day. Ate at an excellent Indian restaurant and the following evening at the Indonesian next door to it. Both were a massive improvement on the rather unimaginative Vietnamese food we'd had most of the time so far.

Daurian Redstart Phoenicurus auroreus
Main attraction here was UNESCO World Heritage site number 75 for me, the extensive Imperial City, much of which had miraculously survived the worst ravages of the war. Well worth the ₫200,000 entry fee and, with large gardens, excellent for wildlife. I found Chinese Blackbird and Daurian Redstart here, both lifers, my American counterpart who visited a day later also found Japanese Thrush and I had an Orange-headed Thrush here so it's well worth digging around in the more unkempt margins of the complex looking for birds. The NE corner with its large Black-crowned Night Heron colony and the gardens just south of that were the best.

Chinese Blackbird Turdus mandarinus
Other birds included Common and White-throated Kingfishers, White-breasted Waterhen, Dusky and Yellow-browed Warblers, Brown Shrike, Red-breasted Parakeets (12 about), Plaintive Cuckoo, Swinhoe's White-eye, Asian Brown Flycatcher, Stejneger's Stonechat and Grey Wagtail. Just outside the city walls found a male philippensis Blue Rock Thrush.



Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax

Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis

White-throated Kingfisher Halcyon smyrnensis

The Imperial City






Just 37 species seen in a couple of days in the city but 2 lifers.

Rock Dove
Zebra Dove
Greater Coucal
Plaintive Cuckoo
Germain's Swiftlet
Common Moorhen
White-breasted Waterhen
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Common Kingfisher
White-throated Kingfisher
Lineated Barbet
Peregrine Falcon
Red-breasted Parakeet
Common Iora
Brown Shrike
Large-billed Crow
Common Tailorbird
Barn Swallow
Red-whiskered Bulbul
Yellow-browed Warbler
Dusky Warbler
Swinhoe's White-eye
Great Myna
Orange-headed Thrush
Chinese Blackbird
Asian Brown Flycatcher
Oriental Magpie-Robin
Taiga Flycatcher
Daurian Redstart
Blue Rock Thrush
Siberian Stonechat
Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker
Eurasian Tree Sparrow
Grey Wagtail
Pied Wagtail/White Wagtail
Paddyfield Pipit
Olive-backed Pipit