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Common Birds from the Car Window in Thailand
 

Farmland in Northern Thailand
One of the first things that many birdwatchers will notice in Thailand is the relative abundance of birds outside of national parks, compared to many other countries in Asia. Whilst hunting and trapping of birds for both the cage bird trade and for food is still all too common in Thailand (See Bird Persecution) it never reaches the scale of these activities in other countries; these problems are particularly bad in Indonesia and Vietnam.
Because birds are left more or less un-harassed in Thailand, in areas of farmland which are cultivated in semi-traditional fashions there are large numbers of species to be found.

For those bird watchers with time on their hands, investigating random agricultural areas will reveal some interesting birds, unfortunately, most visiting birders will not have time for this. Still, such is the abundance of many open country species that travelers will notice many different birds in roadside fields, sitting on posts and wires as well as flying overhead as soon as they leave the airport.

In the past I have kept a list of the species I have seen from the vehicle as I travelled around the country and it is surprising how many can be seen in this way. Even in areas where there are just roadside ditches and scrubby pieces of land, visitors will be able to see many of the birds that I have featured on this list.
 
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This article is intended to give visitors a taster of some of the more common and interesting roadside birds of the lowlands which are the most likely to be noticed from the car window as one travels; hopefully this will give potential visitors an idea of some of the bird species they are likely to see without having to try very hard.
1. Asian Openbill Anastomus oscitans

Asian Openbill
(Photo by Nick Upton)
  For many people, Asian Openbill, cruising overhead, will be the first birds they see in Thailand as they drive along one of the many roads out of the airport. This impressive species is easily identified by its large size and large bill; be careful not to mistake it for an Ibis as its profile in flight can resemble these species.

Asian Openbill was one of the few large waterbirds to survive extinction in Thailand, surviving in a small pocket in northern Bangkok. Since the introduction of a species of snail which lives on rice plants, the population of Asian Openbill Storks has exploded. By providing this service, of keeping down snail numbers, to rice farmers they are left to do their job in ever-growing numbers. In recent years many other large waterbirds have begun to make something of a comeback in Thailand due to the fact that they are not hunted any longer, however, Asian Openbill numbers have increased dramatically for a very different reason - they can now be seen in large numbers in many places and have made it to almost every province of Thailand by 2013.

At one point Asian Openbills were seen by the Thai Government as a major vector for bird flu and a cull was considered. Thankfully they realized this would be foolish, reactionary measure and the storks were spared.

See more images of Asian Openbill here - Asian Openbill Stork photographs and here - Asian Openbill video clips.
2. Little Cormorant Microcarbo niger

Little Cormorant
(Photo by Nick Upton)
  Little Cormorant is a very common resident bird throughout much of the country and it can often be seen flying overhead or sitting with its wings outstretched on roadside wetlands in a similar fashion to other cormorant species around the world as one drives away from the airport.

In flight Little Cormorant has a rather panicky, flappy action and this, together with its small size, tricks a number of visiting birders into thinking that they have seen a duck. Wild ducks are rather uncommon in Thailand away from just a few regular sites and, particularly when driving close to Bangkok, Little Cormorant is much more likely to be seen as one drives along the highway.

One confusion species is Indian Cormorant which is slightly larger and has a much longer bill, something which can be seen even in flight. This species has a more leisurely flight pattern than Little Cormorant with flapping interspersed by glides. Indian Cormorant is less common than Little Cormorant although it is likely to be seen close to Bangkok where it is growing increasingly abundant.

See more photographs of Little Cormorant here - Little Cormorant photos and videos clips here: Little Cormorant videos.
3. Eastern Great Egret Ardea modesta

Eastern Great Egret
(Photo by Johan Svensson)
  Eastern Great Egret (split from Great Egret by some authorities) is a common bird across much of Thailand in the "winter" months and is a fairly common resident around Bangkok and the Central Plains. Its abundance and conspicuousness make it highly likely that it will be spotted from the car window heading out of Suwarnapoom airport,on the way into Bangkok or traveling to birding sites in the west or north east.

In flight Great Egret can be separated from Little Egret by its larger size, heavier bill and black feet. If not in the car, its "Kraaark" call can often be heard as it flies away. Intermediate Egret is a confusion species but this bird is only fractionally bigger than Little Egret whereas Great Egret is much larger.

Look out for recently drained fishponds or paddies being ploughed where an abundance of food often draws large groups of not only Great Egret but other species such as Little Egret and Pond Herons. In the breeding season you may spot some birds with bright blue facial skin and reddish legs - quite a sight!

More photographs of Great Egret can be seen here: Great Egret photos and video clips here: Great Egret video clips.
4. Chinese Pond Heron & Javan Pond Heron Ardeola bacchus & Ardeola speciosa

Javan Pond Heron in breeding plumage
(Photo by Johan Svensson)
  Most bird watchers visit Thailand in the northern hemisphere's winter - Thailand's dry season - when both of these species are in their identical and rather plain winter plumage.

Chinese Pond Heron can be seen throughout Thailand in the dry season and Javan Pond Heron is common in the central plains all year round.

An identification tip for these species in winter plumage mentioned in Robson's Field Guide to the Birds of Thailand is that Chinese Pond Heron has more distinct dark tips to its wings in flight; however, dark tips are more usually down to worn plumage meaning that this is not a reliable identification point. It does appear, though, that in freshwater habitats Chinese Pond Heron tends to outnumber Javan and in saltwater habitats Javan tends to outnumber Chinese; this becomes obvious as both species come into breeding plumage towards the end of February. It is also worth noting that Javan Pond Heron seems to come into breeding plumage slightly earlier than Chinese.

As birders drive around Thailand in the dry season they are certain to see both of these species flying across the road, fishing in roadside ditches and farmland. In winter plumage these species appear brown and streaky when on the ground but in flight they are predominantly white. In summer plumage both of these pond herons are quite striking birds: a visit in March or April will see both species in summer plumage.

More photographs of Javan Pond Heron here: Javan Pond Heron photos. and videos here : Javan Pond Heron video clips.

More photographs of Chinese Pond Heron here: Chinese Pond Heron photos. and watch videos here: Chinese Pond Heron video clips.
5. White-throated Kingfisher Halcyon smyrnensis

White-throated Kingfisher
(Photo by Johan Svensson)
  White-throated Kingfisher is one of the most obvious and easily identified birds that visitors will see perched on roadside posts and cables. It is a common bird which is resident throughout most of the country in well-watered and dry open-country, feeding mainly on insects and lizards but sometimes taking crabs and fish or even young birds.

White-throated Kingfisher has a whinnying call which carries quite some distance. Like many other kingfishers, this species excavates a nest hole in a suitable earth bank usually raising one or two young.

This is perhaps Thailand's most common kingfisher species and most definitely the most abundant in the wet season. It is practically a certainty that bird watchers will see a White-throated Kingfisher from the car window before very long.

More photographs of White-throated Kingfisher here: White-throated Kingfisher.

Watch videos of White-throated Kingfisher here: White-throated Kingfisher.
6. Black-shouldered Kite Elanus caeruleus

Black-shouldered Kite
(Photo by Johan Svensson)
  Black-shouldered Kite is likely to be seen from the car window either perched on a power cable or hovvering in flight as it searches for prey.

This species is one of Thailand's most common raptors, particularly in open-country, and is quite striking in appearance, leaving no difficulty in identification even from a moving vehicle. However, Black-shouldered Kite often remains inactive for much of the day, sitting perched, and usually does most of its hunting in the late afternoon.

If visitors see Black-shouldered Kite from the car it is worth stopping to watch it properly as although common it is encountered far more often as one travels than from regular birding stops and it is possible that it will be the only chance to view it properly, particularly if only on a short trip.

For birders from the US it is worth mentioning that this species has been split from the similar species in America.

More photographs of Black-shouldered Kite here - Black-shouldered Kite photos. and videos can be watched here -
Black-shouldered Kite video clips.
7. Brahminy Kite Haliastur indus

Brahminy Kite
(Photo by Johan Svensson)
  Brahminy Kite is one of the more abundant species of raptor in Thailand and this is particularly true close to the coast and it is included here because of the frequency it is seen flying across the road as one leaves Bangkok and heads to Laem Pak Bia/Pak Thale - a journey made by many visiting birders. As well as being a bird of the roadside on this particular journey, any beach holiday in the south of Thailand will almost certainly result in sightings of the species.

Adult Brahminy Kites are easily identified even from a fast moving vehicle due to their size and colouration and juveniles can be separated from Black Kites by their unforked tails. Brahminy Kites catch their own fish and also rob birds such as egrets and herons of their catch; an exciting spectacle. Although this species is still relatively abundant it has apparently undergone a massive decline since the 1970s, a decline which is thought to be due to dam construction, increased use of agrochemicals and persecution - it is still common around the coast south of Bangkok.

More photographs of Brahminy Kite here: Brahminy Kite.

Watch videos of Brahminy Kite here: Brahminy Kite.
8. Indian Roller Coracias benghalensis

Indian Roller
(Photo by Alex Vargas)
  Indian Roller is a common bird throughout Thailand and seems to favour drier country although it will also be found in smaller numbers in wetland areas. Sooner or later, birders driving around Thailand will see the distinctive outline of an Indian Roller sitting on overhead cables and when it flies its beautiful blue wings create a memorable spectacle, although it can appear quite dull when perched.

As tempting as it might be to leap out and photograph Indian Rollers at every opportunity, you can end up spending a lot of time doing this as, in some places, there will be a Roller on the cables every couple of hundred metres. It is worth waiting until you see one of these colourful birds sitting somewhere photogenic and in good light - silhouetted shots of the bird sitting on wires are not so exciting!

An interesting paper on Indian Rollers can be seen here - Population, Diurnal Activity Patterns and Feeding Ecology of The Indian Roller Coracias benghalensis by N. Sivakumaran & K. Thiyagesan.

Watch Indian Rollers in action here - Indian Roller video clips and view more photos here - Indian Roller photos.

9. Feral Pigeon Columba livia

Feral Pigeon
(Photo by Nick Upton)
  So often, when one gets to a new country all the birds are lifers, every crow, sparrow and dove. Well, don't get excited this is just the same old Feral Pigeon that seems to get everywhere. In Robson and also in Lekagul & Round this species is rather grandly referred to as Rock Pigeon/Dove and whilst many birds do look like genuine Rock Pigeons and there are no doubt some genuine birds nesting on isolated cliffs, it seems somewhat optimistic to assume that most of the birds are anything other than Feral Pigeons.

Feral Pigeons seem to do especially well in Bangkok where the typical design of apartments includes a balcony containing an air-conditioning unit, behind which the pigeons make their nest. This abundance of pigeons attracts Peregrine Falcons into the city as it does elsewhere in the world.

Take a look at Pigeon Watch for lots of information on Feral Pigeons.
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10. Ashy Woodswallow Artamus fuscus

Ashy Woodswallows
(Photo by Alex Vargas)
  Ashy Woodswallow is a fairly small but compact bird and is perhaps one of the cutest species that is likely to be seen on a Thailand birding trip due to its habit of sitting huddled together, often in large groups, making a rather attractive photo opportunity - similarly to how these two are perched.

The woodswallows are an Australian group of birds but this species is common throughout much of Thailand, in drier open-country and even in the centre of some smaller towns. Ashy Woodswallows seems to particularly like tall radio masts and suchlike where they will often nest - if one sees any large masts, stop and an Ashy Woodswallow will almost certainly be there.

See more photographs of Ashy Woodswallow here - Ashy Woodswallow photos and watch videos here - Ashy Woodswallow video clips.
11. Common Myna Acridotheres tristis

Common Myna
(Photo by Nick Upton)
  Common Myna is indeed a very common bird and it will be one of the first species that any visiting bird watcher is likely to see as it forages around in villages, farmland, petrol stations, parks and cities.

As might be expected from a bird that does so well in proximity to humans, Common Myna is a generalist, feeding on worms, beetles, insect larva, fruits and raiding bins for scraps of food. On one occasion, at Suan Luang, I witnessed a Common Myna winning a three-way tug-of-war over a katydid (a large insect) with a Streak-eared Bulbul and an Oriental Magpie Robin.

In keeping with its often scruffy appearance and scruffy, bin-raiding lifestyle, Common Myna builds a scruffy ball of a nest which is sometimes parasitized by Koels; watching Mynas feeding juvenile Koels is an interesting sight.

More photographs of Common Myna here - Common Myna photos. and videos here - Common Myna video clips.
12. Black Drongo Dicrurus macrocercus

Black Drongo
(Photo by Peter Ericsson)
  In the "winter" months (October to April) Black Drongo is a very common bird across the country in farmland and can frequently be seen perched on posts and overhead cables as one is driving. This is the only species of drongo likely to be seen in this habitat so despite its superficial similarity to other drongos there is no difficulty identifying it, even from a speeding car.

It is worth noting that although Black Drongo is listed as being resident in Robson's Field Guide to the Birds of Thailand, in reality most birds are migrants are of the migrant race, particularly in open-country and smaller numbers of the resident race remain in Thailand in the wet season, and most of those in lightly wooded parkland situations.

In winter, Black Drongos can form impressive roosts, numbering in the thousands and it is quite a spectacle to watch them swooping in, in groups of 10-20 as they gather. One such roost exists in the mangroves at the King's Project Area, Laem Pak Bia.

You can read an interesting report on Black Drongo migration here - Migration of Black Drongo Dicrurus macrocercus in southern Thailand in autumn 2003 by Robert DeCandido, Chukiat Nualsri and Deborah Allen.

Take a look at more photographs of Black Drongo here - Black Drongo photos and watch videos here: Black Drongo video clips.
13. Brown Shrike Lanius cristatus

Brown Shrike
(Photo by Johan Svensson)
  Shrikes tend to be a sought-after group of species by most birdwatchers and Brown Shrike is one that can hardly be missed in the dry season as it can commonly be seen perched on posts, twigs and wires in all manner of open-country habitats throughout Thailand.

Like most other shrikes, the Brown Shrike feeds on large insects and small lizards, sometimes impaling them on thorns before eating them; it has also been known to eat small birds.

mid August. At least four races have been recorded but most birds in Thailand are of two subspecies; cristatus and confusus, although due to worn plumage it can often be difficult to decide which subspecies has been seen.

More photographs of Brown Shrike can be seen here - Brown Shrike photos and watch videos here: Brown Shrike video clips.
14. Red Collared Dove Streptopelia tranquebarica

Red Collared Dove
(Photo by Johan Svensson)
  Red Collared Dove is probably the most attractive of the common dove species likely to be seen in Thailand. The male's beautiful red back contrasts with his grey head and black collar, making it a very pretty bird indeed.

Red Collared Dove can be seen in ones and twos throughout the day, sitting on wires and foraging at the roadside, but in the late afternoon dozens of these birds can often be seen collecting on roadside wires before heading to their roosting places.

For those looking to get good photos of Red Collared Dove, either Lumphini Park, Suan Luang or Suan Rot Fai are excellent places to get close to it.

More photographs of Red Collared Dove here: Red Collared Dove.

Watch videos of Red Collared Dove here: Red Collared Dove.
15. Eastern Jungle Crow & Large-billed Crow Corvus levaillantii & Corvus macrorhynchos

Eastern Jungle Crow
(Photo by Alex Vargas)
  These two species were split after the publication of a comprehensive paper on crows throughout Asia. Despite this I find it difficult to accept that these are separate species as I have studied them and cannot observe any discernable difference between the "two species"; the culmen of the bills supposedly differ. There is supposed to be somewhere in Thailand (around Petchaburi/Prachuab Kiri Khan?) where one species takes over from the other although this spot has not been identified and "intermediate" birds are known.

However, although they are just crows, these two species provide easy ticks for visitors as the species can be seen in any open country, forest clearings, campsites, farmland, parks and even in Bangkok city centre. Although most birders are likely to see one of these species from the car window (Eastern Jungle Crow in most of the country, Large-billed in the south) soon after arrival in Thailand, it is worth taking time to observe it closely as they are birds which do all sorts of funny things.

Like all crows, Large-billed Crow is a very intelligent species and can be seen performing various tricks depending on the habitat. I have seen them "mugging" mynas for food, masquerading as chickens to steal their feed and one individual, at Ko Surin, that was admiring itself in a campsite mirror as it preened: it seems that vanity comes with intelligence.

Read about crow's ability to recognise human faces here: Clever Crows. Watch a crow making a tool from wire and using it to obtain food in this collection of bird videos: 10 Bird Video Clips.
16. White-vented Myna Acridotheres grandis

White-vented Myna
(Photo by Nick Upton)
  White-vented Myna is one of the most common species in Thailand and will most certainly be encountered by visiting birdwatchers before getting out of the car. This species is almost as common as Common Myna, indeed, in well-watered open-country outside of urban areas it is probably more common.

In rice-farming areas White-vented Myna can often be found in large groups following mechanical or buffalo-drawn ploughs, collecting the invertebrates that are disturbed in the process. White-vented Mynas perched on the backs of buffalo and other cattle make nice photographs.

Birdwatchers heading to Kaeng Krachan national park will inevitably see large groups of White-vented Mynas on the roads that approach it; these birds seem to be well-practiced at dodging speeding vehicles although I always slow down for them.

More photographs of White-vented Myna here - White-vented Myna photos and video clips here - White-vented Myna videos.
17. Oriental Magpie Robin Copsychus saularis

Oriental Magpie Robin
(Photo by Zhao Chao)
  Oriental Magpie Robin may be one of the slightly harder species on this list to spot when driving as it is only the size of a European Blackbird. However, it will only be a matter of time before one is seen early in the morning singing from a roadside wire or post, perhaps outside your hotel room's window early in the morning.

As well as being of similar size to European Blackbird it would be fair to say that occupies a similar niche as it can be found in parks, gardens, open land and forest edge. It even jumps around on lawns cocking its tail whilst foraging for invertebrates, similarly to Blackbirds. Magpie Robins also sit of rooftops and sing in the late afternoon to advertize their presence.

Oriental Magpie Robins are highly territorial and frequently sing to warn competitors away. This territoriality also manifests itself in aggressive clashes with intruders, both other Magpie Robins and other species.

Visit this page to read Song Performance Rules in the Oriental Magpie Robin (Copsychus salauris) by H. Bhattacharya, J. Cirillo, B.R. Subba and D. Todt

See more photographs here - Oriental Magpie Robin photos and watch videos here - Oriental Magpie Robin video clips.
18. Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus

Black-winged Stilt
(Photo by Nick Upton)
  Black-winged Stilt is one of the few waders that is a resident bird in Thailand and it can be seen in a variety of wetland habitats from rice fields to salt farms. Anyone driving anywhere around the Central Plains is almost certain to see this species from the car window somewhere on the journey; they are easily spotted and recognized even when travelling fast along the highway.

Black-winged Stilt nests in a variety of open situations including trampled vegetation and the bunds between salt pans and pools; the juveniles can be seen in July and August - quite a cute bird. Juveniles can have a superficial resemblance to Common Greenshank or Marsh Sandpiper at a distance so check carefully in the breeding season.

For those visitors who like to take photographs a trip to the Environmental Research and Development Project initiated by H.M King Bhumibol at Laem Pak Bia is an excellent location where you are guaranteed to get really close to Black-winged Stilts.

See more images of Black-winged Stilt here: Black-winged Stilt photos and here: Black-winged Stilt video clips.
19. Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus

Eurasian Tree Sparrow
(Photo by Nick Upton)
  Anyone familiar with the decline of the Tree Sparrow in Europe might well be surprised how they thrive in Thailand. Perhaps they appreciate the warmer climate, but whatever the reason for their abundance, this species is ubiquitous around human habitation and it is likely that it will be one of the first species seen by any visiting birder; you can look out for it as soon as you get off the plane.

One of the reasons for the Tree Sparrows success in Thailand is certainly its ability to nest in cavities in buildings, something it does not seem to do very often in Europe, and as one drives through villages any small birds seen on and around buildings are likely to be Tree Sparrows. The plumage of town-dwelling Tree Sparrows in Thailand is dark and scruffy, similarly to that of House Sparrows in Europe and be sure that you do not leave plates of rice unattended outside or you may find that one of these cheeky characters makes off with your food.

More photographs of Tree Sparrows here - Eurasian Tree Sparrow photos and watch videos here - Eurasian Tree Sparrow video clips.
20. Eastern Cattle Egret Bubulcus coromandus

Eastern Cattle Egret
(Photo by Peter Ericsson)
  Eastern Cattle Egret is a common bird in both well-watered and dry open-country and is usually seen in groups, sometimes quite large. This is one species that is well-named as it is frequently seen alongside cattle and other livestock, often riding on the back of buffaloes but also large flocks follow tractors through fields during ploughing; I have seen groups numbering in the hundreds near Petchaburi.

In the breeding season Eastern Cattle Egrets are rather handsome with their buffy, straw-coloured necks, but in the dry season they are all white but easily identified by their rather squat stature.

Most authorities have now split this species from Western Cattle Egret; it does look quite different from this species in breeding plumage and there are some minor structural differences too.

See more photographs of Eastern Cattle Egret here - Eastern Cattle Egret photos and watch videos clips here - Eastern Cattle Egret videos.
  Bird Watching Trips in Thailand:
If you want to do more than just see common wayside species then you may want to think about a trip out to see harder to find birds.

Whether you just want a day out birding or a longer trip there is always something of interest to see regardless of the time of year.


Contact me to arrange a trip and/or to discuss the best birdwatching options for you: nickupton@thaibirding.com

This is not intended to be a complete list of common roadside birds in Thailand, but it should give visitors an idea of the types of birds that can easily be seen.

If you manage to find a quite road, through rice-growing areas, you are likely to see many more species than those listed here, but the birds featured on this page are ones that can be spotted even from the highway, in most parts of Thailand.
Other common species likely to be seen by the roadside include:  
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  • Spotted Dove

  • Little Egret

  • Pied Fantail

  • Asian Pied Starling

  • Red-wattled Lapwing

  • Black-crowned Night Heron

  • Peaceful Dove

  • Eastern Stonechat
  •  
  • White-breasted Waterhen

  • Asian Palm Swift

  • Asian Koel

  • Greater Coucal

  • Blue-tailed Bee-eater

  • Green Bee-eater

  • Streak-eared Bulbul

  • Barn Swallow
  • Increasingly, House Sparrow is becoming a roadside bird in much of the country, although it is still greatly outnumbered by Eurasian Tree Sparrow in most places.

    In northern Thailand both Sooty-headed Bulbul and Black-collared Starling become common birds that can often be seen from the car window.
     Acknowledgements
    Some of the information on the above species was adapted from Phil Round's The Birds of the Bangkok Area with his kind permission.
     
       
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