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Birding in (near) Bangkok
 
Which part of Thailand has the most species of birds? And where can the greatest number of rare and threatened birds be found? The answer is not Huai Kha Khaeng, Kaeng Krachan, Khao Yai or any other extensive wilderness as you might suppose. In both cases, the answer is "Right here, on Bangkok's doorstep!"
Such a counterintuitive statement deserves qualification. One should not seek to directly compare say, Huai Kha Khaeng, which supports mainly forest birds, including hornbills and green peafowl, with the Bangkok area, which supports more waterbirds and migratory species. This is comparing chalk and cheese: Both sites, in their own way, are equally important in the national biodiversity conservation picture. But whereas the wildlife importance of, say, Huai Kha Khaeng is already recognised, that of the Bangkok area is not.

The Lower Chao Phraya Delta, a 20,000km2 expanse of mainly rice paddies, with the mega-city of Bangkok slap bang in the middle, and extending to the coastline of the inner gulf, is one of the greatest wetlands in Southeast Asia. Recognised as an IBA (Important Bird Area) by BirdLife International, it is the single area most deserving of urgent conservation attention, yet it is largely ignored by those government officials whose jobs supposedly concern them with biodiversity conservation.
 
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The Bangkok area holds some of the rarest birds in the world - for instance, the enigmatic Spoon-billed Sandpiper, which breeds at the far tip of Arctic Northeast Asia, and flies to winter on salt pans and coastal mudflats on Southeast Asia. Its global population has declined by 80 to 90 per cent in the past 20 years and only 600 to 1,000 individuals remain, at most. Ask any globe-trotting bird-lister the best place in the world to see Spoon-billed Sandpipers, and he will unhesitatingly give you the name of a salt-farming cooperative a few kilometres from the booming fishing port and industrial centre of Samut Sakhon. Khok Kham, and its local conservation club - the guardians of their traditional salt-farming lifestyle - are world-renowned, thanks to the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, which finds a safe haven there. Altogether, the Lower Chao Phraya Delta holds at least 21 threatened and near-threatened birds, and another 40 species for which the numerical concentrations are internationally important.

The connection between the freshwater hinterland, and the brackish water coastal strip in Samut Prakan, Samut Sakhon and neighbouring Samut Songkhram provinces has been irrevocably severed by an ugly and chaotic sprawl of industry and barracks-like housing along the arterial roads leading in and out of Bangkok.

But further west, in more rural Phetchaburi, the gradual transition from inland freshwater marshland and rice paddy and the brackish flats, ponds, salt pans and mudflats of the coastal zone remains uninterrupted, rendering this area of unique interest. With its lower human population density, rice paddies, scattered farms and hamlets, groves of sugar palms interrupted by the occasional glittering temple roof, it is an area of bucolic splendour and serenity. This a mega-destination for birds and birdwatchers alike, supporting tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of waterbirds for much of the year. Besides Painted Storks and Asian Openbills, Indian Cormorants, egrets and Spot-billed Pelicans, there are large flocks of smaller, insectivorous birds including pipits and wagtails. Hundreds of pairs of Oriental Pratincoles - actually a waterbird, but one with short legs and bill, which makes its living by hawking flying insects - lay their eggs on dry-baked, post-harvest mud-soil of the ricefields during the hottest months of March and April.

Incredibly, at least four species of eagles - the globally threatened Greater Spotted and Imperial Eagles, the Steppe Eagle and Booted Eagle also frequent rice paddies around Phetchaburi, along with other predatory birds including several hundred Black Kites and a few tens of Eastern Marsh Harriers and Pied Harriers.

These hawks and eagles are highly migratory, and the habitat they seek out when fleeing the snowy winters of their Central and North Asian breeding areas is single crop rice-paddy in Thailand's Lower Central Plain. Where the ricefields remain fallow for a few months after the single crop is harvested in the early dry season, the food web is uninterrupted. A diverse array of herbaceous plants among the harvested rice stubble sustains many insects, which provide food for frogs, small reptiles and small insectivorous birds. These, together with rats and other small mammals, are in turn consumed by the many predatory birds, while ricefield crabs and small fish in ditches provide abundant food for waterbirds. The productivity of the system is also enhanced by the dung of grazing animals - cows and buffaloes - that are turned out to roam on the fields after harvest.

This used to be true of ricefields throughout Thailand's Central Plain, but in recent years, the pattern of growing rice has been stood on its head. Most areas are now within reach of irrigation schemes, while better flood control means that rice can be readied for harvest more rapidly. Instead of a single crop, planted during the wet season and harvested in December or January, now two or three crops of high yield rice - chemicals replacing the fertiliser that nature used to provide for free through the medium of nutrient-rich silts deposited by floodwaters - are grown. No sooner is one crop harvested than another is planted, and there is no longer any fallow period.

Multi-cropped, irrigated rice now occupies over half of the rice-growing area of the Central Plains. The uninterrupted emerald expanse may look easy on the eye, but in reality it is a sterile, pesticide and herbicide-laced "poison green" biological wasteland. It produces food for humans, but very little else.

The evidence for the effects of changing agricultural land use on birds is clear. Roughly 20 years ago, before rice-multi-cropping had completely supplanted traditional mono-cropping around Ayutthaya and Pathum Thani, roosts of hundreds of black kites, and a few greater spotted eagles could even be found in sugar palms near the Pathum Thani Bridge, on the northern outskirts of Bangkok. These concentrations have long since vanished. Even the numbers of small insect-eating birds such as long-tailed shrikes and black drongos have plummeted in the past 25 years, and their decline has been tracked as the food web that used to sustain them has collapsed. High diversity ricefields and their bird fauna are now confined to a few shrinking areas of mono-cropping around the margins of the Central Plains, in Prachinburi to the east and Phetchaburi to the west.

The key point about the Bangkok area is that the survival of the most endangered and sensitive birds depends upon traditional forms of land use that have been in place for hundreds of years. Salt pans and traditional, shallow prawn-capture ponds provide high-tide loafing and feeding areas for spoon-billed sandpipers and a host of other shorebirds; the largest, least disturbed ponds support spot-billed pelicans, painted storks and other larger waterbirds; while single-crop rice paddies support a diverse array of predatory and insectivorous birds. None of these bird species is represented in significant numbers in any of Thailand's national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. They are betrayed by our lack of any comprehensive nature conservation policy.

Wetlands and some farmlands have retained their conservation value because traditional patterns of use have evolved gradually, shaping the land over centuries. This is well recognised in Europe where, once the role of traditional land-use systems in maintaining wildlife populations and unique landscapes was recognised, it has often proved possible to regulate present-day land use through management agreements, legislation or financial incentives.

A strong case can be argued for likewise preserving the human-modified wetland habitats of Thailand's Central Plains. Rice mono-cropping in the freshwater zone, salt-farming in the coastal zone and other traditional forms of land use that sustain biodiversity, could be maintained through agricultural subsidies, to safeguard not only wildlife but also the quality of life of the human inhabitants.

Before you snort with derision over the impossibility of instituting such a system in Thailand, consider first how much taxpayers' money is wasted by the central government, by province and tambol administrative organisations, local and national politicians, on frivolous and unnecessary construction projects such as grandiose buildings, tourist facilities that are never used, roads that are much wider than needed and which crumble into potholes during the first monsoon season. Why? Because leakage of money from ceaseless construction projects provides patronage - the grease that oils the wheels of Thailand's political machine. More construction means more money entering the system: It is as simple as that. Construction projects are the means by which the politicians extract money from taxpayers in order to boost their own election prospects.

Wouldn't it make more sense to use some of this money to sustain traditional land use rather than spending it ceaselessly building, building, building?

As a signatory of the International Convention on Wetlands (the Ramsar Convention), the Thai government is already legally obliged to integrate wetland conservation into its national and land-use planning, and to promote and implement so-called "wise use" or sustainable use of wetlands: This means all wetlands, not just protected areas. Up to now this provision of the wetland convention has been ignored. Rice paddies are wetlands too, albeit wetlands that are modified from their original state. They support globally threatened species, and it is therefore grossly negligent of the government to fail to implement measures that would offer these habitats a measure of protection.

At the present time, anybody (more or less) can build anything, no matter how inappropriate, anywhere they choose, provided they have sufficient money. This cannot be allowed to go on. Thailand urgently needs to implement zoning legislation that takes account of biodiversity and landscape values of rural areas, and imposes some restrictions on land use. This is not just a matter of safeguarding aesthetic and conservation values; it also makes good economic sense. There will not be enough money in the whole of the national budget to defend Thailand's Central Plain against the effects of flooding caused by rising sea levels due to global warming in the future. Why spend money protecting buildings in inappropriate, flood-prone locations when they should never have been built in the first place?

Additionally, although farmers may prefer to grow dry season irrigated rice as the sale price is higher, this practice is not sustainable. It places unreasonable demands on scant water resources: There is just not enough water to go around. Increased costs for labour, agrochemicals and diesel undo any short term benefits reaped by farmers from increased global demand for rice. Ultimately small rice farmers may be forced into selling their land to developers in order to pay off their debts.

Subsidising rice farmers to return to a single, rain-fed cropping pattern in all but those areas most accessible to irrigation would both relieve demand for water and benefit biodiversity, while at the same time sustain rural communities. It would help maintain the diverse rural culture of the Siamese heartland while at the same time enable the Thai government to live up to its international obligations under the Ramsar Convention.
How can you help? Join the Bird Conservation Society of Thailand, which is the national partner of the million-strong worldwide alliance BirdLife International. For details, see the society's web site at http://www.bcst.or.th or call 02-691-5976.

The Birds of the Bangkok Area provides the most complete account of the birds of the Lower Chao Phraya Delta to date. The introductory chapters provide a detailed exposition of conservation and land-use issues impacting biodiversity in the Central Plains.

Over 200 species of birds are covered in full detail, and the book contains a comprehensive inventory of all bird species that have been recorded in the Lower Central Plain.

The book is available from most English-language bookstores in Thailand.

Birds of the Bangkok Area by Philip D. Round

Bangkok Post, 4th August 2008


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