by Nick Upton
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Ten Tips for Birdwatching in Thailand
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Even just a quick glance at a copy of Craig Robson's "A Field Guide to the Birds of Thailand" will alert birdwatchers to the large number of species present in Thailand and, indeed, those making their first trip to the country may be excused for thinking that they will get off the plane and be bombarded by a vast array of colourful and exotic birds. Unfortunately, this is not the case and many birders have commented on what they perceived to be a general lack of birds. Although to many European visitors there can appear to be a lack of birds, particularly gulls and ducks which are so common in many northern latitudes, Thailand is in fact blessed with a particularly rich avifauna and, in contrast to many Asian nations, birds outside of protected areas are relatively abundant.

A combination of the unfamiliar climate and vegetation is to blame for many visiting birdwatchers finding birds so difficult to locate, with intense heat during the day making birds very hard to find outside of the dawn and dusk periods of peak activity and dense vegetation with a high canopy making it difficult to spot birds even when they are close by.

Here I have attempted to give ten tips that will help birdwatchers make the most of their stay in Thailand and identify as many species as possible.
1. Be familiar with the species: Knowing what to expect can help when presented with a large number of new species in a short space of time; this is particularly important when watching mixed feeding flocks of small birds in forests. Buying a copy of "A Guide to the Birds of Thailand" by Lekagul & Round or "A Field Guide to the Birds of Thailand" by Craig Robson well in advance of travelling to Thailand will give birders time to study the species likely to be seen and to become familiar with the habitats that they occur in, as well as becoming familiar with the layout of the books themselves. If both books are being used together, then birders will be well advisied to spend some time using both as the species are ordered differently in each. The distribution maps in both books are useful for giving birdwatchers some indication of which species are likely to be encountered and where the may be found, although these maps are far from complete and it is quite a common occurence to see species outside of these prescribed ranges.

Browsing through the birding locations pages here on will also give you an indication which are the key species for each birding site and the checklists should also provide some valuable infomation, although most of the lists are far from complete.
  2. Get to a good location: Thailand has a lot of National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries and these are generally good locations for birdwatching. Although illegal hunting and encroachment occurs in most of the country's protected areas, generally, sufficient habitat remains and hunting pressures are low enough for birds to remain abundant.

In many rural parts of Thailand birds can still be found in good numbers even outside of protected areas. Where farming and aquaculture is extensive enough to create diverse habitat patchworks, a good number of bird species can often be found. Temple grounds can often be good places to look for birds as large, mature trees often remain within them and hunting is forbidden.

A number of farmers around the country have retained wild patches of ground and waterbird colonies have thrived within these. Indeed, large waterbirds appear to be making something of a comeback as hunting pressures subside.
Some birdwatchers make the mistake of expecting to see large numbers of bird species in areas such as rubber and palm oil plantations; these areas are very poor in species, similarly to monocultures in other parts of the world. Parts of the Central Plains are very intesively farmed for rice, and although some waterbirds can be seen in these areas, they are generally rather poor for other species.
3. Get up early: The importance of this cannot be overstated: the sun rises between 6 and 7 am and by 9.30 to 10.30 am bird activity, particularly in forests, has noticeably decreased. Don't make the mistake of having a lie-in and going birding after a sedate breakfast - you will see very little and become uncomfortably hot. The period before dusk (about 2-3 hours before sunset) can also be good for birdwatching, but the level of bird activity rarely becomes as intense as the early mornings.

Having said this, birders who stay out all day will see more species than those who retire for an afternoon nap, and by getting to a good raptor watch site or wetland, the most can be made of the afternoon period. Be sure to take plenty of water and sunscreen!

4. Learn some bird calls: With such a huge number of species present, and the skulking nature of many of them, it is important to learn the calls of some species. It is a very good idea to learn the calls of any target species you may have and also of secretive ground-dwelling species such as Pittas.

Another good practice is to quickly learn the calls of the most common species, so that when something unusual is heard one can concentrate upon finding the species that made it.

Using taped bird calls can be an effective way of finding some difficult species, but quite frankly, at some locations in Thailand this practice has become quite abused; I'm told that using taped calls at a stake-out for Rusty-naped Pitta near Malee's at Doi Chiang Dao became such a problem that eventually the bird abandoned its territory. Please be sparing in this practice and completely refrain from doing it in areas that receive large numbers of other birdwatchers.

5. Be quiet and vigilant: Birding in tropical forests can be really frustrating at times and it is possible to walk for an hour without seeing anything. Walking slowly and quietly will help birders locate species as it is easy to detect movements by ear or sight. However, it is a good strategy to occasionally stop and wait for birds to come into view, particularly in an area where there may be a good food or water source.

When walking it is good practice to lift one's feet at each step to avoid making noisy rustling sounds and of course, if birdwatching in company only speak very quietly and only when necessary.

Occasionally, it is advisable to walk briskly, but quietly, along a trail in order to surprise species that become aware of your presence very quickly, even when quiet.
6. Look out for fruiting and flowering trees: In forests in Thailand flowering and fruiting trees can be a fantastic opportunity to watch a large variety of species in one location. If a suitable tree is found it is a good strategy to just sit and watch what is visiting; rarely does one have to wait long for something of interest to show up.

Flowering trees can attract large numbers of Drongos, Barbets and Bulbuls and banana flowers are favourites of Spiderhunters whilst fruting trees are often the feeding places of Hornbills and Green Pigeons; Pittas and Pheasants sometimes feed on fallen fruit too. Creeping up to a fruiting tree and watching from below will sometimes reward observers with sightings of large mammals too, such as Gibbons, Langurs and Civets in addition to being a good way of finding birds.
7. Wear the right clothes: Wearing appropriate clothing will help birders remain comfortable and devote more energy and attention to finding birds. Long-sleeved cotton shirts are advisable for dealing with sweat and preventing insect bites. Similarly, canvas trousers are suitable for walking through grasslands and forest (avoid shorts), and army trousers are particularly good at drying quickly, even in humid atmospheres. In the rainy season leech socks are an excellent addition to the birder's wardrobe; although lecches are harmless they are fairly unpleasant and can prove a real distraction in some lowland forest regions, most notably Khao Sok and Hala-Bala.

8. Carry an umbrella: An umbrella is a useful tool for birdwatchers in Thailand. Umbrellas can be used to give shade from the sun in exposed areas as well as protect from the rain. Some people will opt for coats of some design to avoid a soaking but the disadvantage is that the hoods obstruct hearing and create rustling noises that can be mistaking for foraging birds. An umbrella with a hook at the handle's end is best as it can hook onto a day pack and this type is also sturdy enough to be used for bashing unruly dogs or moving spiky vines aside.

9. Don't get lost: Rather an obvious statement, but sticking to well-worn trails can be good practice as these are usually free from fallen leaves and twigs that will make a noise when walking. Following streams or gulleys can be very useful as some secretive species stick to these areas and they are easily followed. However, stepping off the main trail in forested areas can result in getting lost remarkably quickly as vegetation can be extremely dense. If one gets lost in this fashion then it can take ages to find one's way and by then the best of the day's birding has passed.

Sticking to main trails also reduces the likelihood of wandering onto private land and getting into trouble.

10. Submit your records: By submitting your records I can keep the latest sightings section of as up-to-date as possible and others will be able to make use of the information when planning their own trips. Additionally, these records are sent to the Bird Conservation Society of Thailand for their records.

There are very few sightings submitted between the months of May and November, so almost anything from this period is of interest.

  Bird Tours : Check the suggested itineraries for ideas on creating a tailor-made birdwatching trip to Thailand: Thailand bird tours.
These are just ten useful ideas that will help birders enjoy their experience in Thailand, but I'm sure there are more. If anyone has anything to add to this list please e-mail me with your suggestions and I'll happily add to it.

Nick Upton 28th June 2007
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