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Hala Bala Wildlife Sanctuary
 Introduction

Blyth's Hawk Eagle
(Photo by Peter Ericsson)
 

Hala-Bala Wildlife Sanctuary, in Narathiwat province, is made up of two sectors; Hala sector and Bala sector. Hala sector is seldom-visited and quite undocumented, however, Bala sector has been receiving visitors for about 10 years now. Prior to that this area was a stronghold of Islamic insurgents and not a safe place to be.

The Bala sector of this Wildlife Sanctuary consists mainly of lowland forest on the border with Malaysia making it just about the only place in Thailand where many lowland Sundaic species can be found. In addition to this, the forest is exceptionally beautiful with lots of mature trees and clear streams and these, together with the remote location, give visitors a real sense of wilderness. There are a number of short trails within the Wildlife Sanctuary for those that like to walk, but simply birding along the road can prove very productive.

Over the last few years there has been an increase in violence in this part of Thailand with over 3000 people having been killed since 2004, Tourists haven't usually been targeted but schools, train stations, police stations and government offices have been attacked by insurgents and mosques have been raided by the government. I wouldn't like to be responsible for people getting into trouble in this area so it would be wise to research the situation close to the time one wants to travel to Bala.

Currently it is completely unsafe to travel to this region with deaths as a result of terrorism reported daily in the Thai newspapers.

 
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 Birding Highlights

There are so many birding highlights here it is difficult to know where to start. Javan Frogmouths regularly nest near the headquarters, making it probably the easiest place in the country to see this species. Bat Hawks also have a conveniently viewable nest from almost the same spot providing two fabulous species within a few minutes of your arrival. Hornbills are a constant feature at this location, and for me are among the most memorable birds in the whole country. Rhinoceros, Helmeted, Wrinkled, Bushy-crested, White-crowned, Wreathed and Plain-pouched Hornbills can all be seen in the vicinity of HQ, with Great and Black Hornbills present too.

Chestnut-naped Forktail is another species that draws birders to this location, with views almost guaranteed. The lowland forest in this region is also the home of some of the most elusive and sought after ground dwelling species; Garnet Pitta, Giant Pitta and Rail-babbler have all been seen in recent years.

If these species don't whet your appetite then the profusion of Bulbuls, Babblers, Woodpeckers, Barbets, Kingfishers and more should ensure that in three or four days your species list should easily exceed 100!

 
Javan Frogmouth
(Photo by Suppalak Klabdee)
Click here for a checklist of the birds of Hala-Bala
  Bird Tours : Check the suggested itineraries for ideas on creating a tailor-made birdwatching trip to Thailand: Thailand bird tours.
 Travel Information
Bala Wildlife Sanctuary  

Getting to the Bala Sector of Hala-Bala Wildlife Sanctuary is not as difficult as one might think. I would recommend going by car, hiring one in one of the southern towns; they would be widely available from Phuket or Krabi. The main highway south goes to Narathiwat and from there signposts to Sungai Kolok should be followed. If travelling by public transport, there are plenty of buses from the southern bus terminal in Bangkok to Sungai Kolok. The journey takes in the region of 16 hours. From Sungai Kolok follow the main road to Waeng and from there continue along the road which heads to the border. Shortly after leaving Waeng, Bala Wildlife Sanctuary is signposted; simply follow these.

If arriving in Sungai Kolok by public transport one would have to look around for transport to the park; the border crossing to Malaysia would be a starting point for this. However, I wouldn't advise attempting to arrive by public transport without having a car to drive to the park, particularly when security is an issue in this part of Thailand. Having a private vehicle will also allow birders to properly enjoy the birding hotspots around the park which are long distances from each other and could not all be reached on foot.

 
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 Finding Birds
Simply hanging around the Research station will allow birders to see many species of Hornbill, Bat Hawk, Javan Frogmouth and Black-thighed Falconet to mention a few, but by moving around many more species can be found. 
HQ Research Station Sirintorn Waterfall Viewpoints Temple

HQ : A number of flowering trees here allow good views of many Bulbuls, Flowerpeckers and Spiderhunters, with most of the southern specialities being fairly easy to find.

Research Station : Some birders spend the whole day in and around the research station, and many excellent species can be found in this way. A stake-out for Bat Hawk and Javan Frogmouth exists behind a shed where tools and vehicles are kept, just after the turning which goes down a steep slope. The Frogmouth sits in a tree slightly to the right of this shed and can be seen at close quarters. The Bat Hawks nest in a large distant tree and can be viewed through a telescope when at the nest. The staff at the research station are happy to spend a few minutes helping visiting birders locate both of these species.

Many Hornbills can be encountered around here too. Rhinoceros Hornbill regularly comes to feed on nearby trees and is quite a fabulous sight. The rare Wrinkled Hornbill sometimes passes by in small flocks and Wreathed Hornbills often fly overhead. Plenty of smaller birds frequently show up here also; Collared Falconet is a much photographed highlight which can usually be seen perched on bare branches; Brown and Gold-whiskered Barbets are often found in the larger trees and Long-billed Spiderhunter is usually easy to see feeding on flowering ornamental trees.

 
Wrinkled Hornbill
(Photo by Suppalak Klabdee)

A track runs down a steep slope from the accommodation at the research centre into a river valley. Down here there is a circular, paved trail which can be a great place to see Babblers, with Short-tailed Babbler being particularly numerous on my visit. Next to the river is a small shelter which is a good place to have lunch and is a stake-out for Kingfishers.

Another trail crosses this river and goes through some excellent lowland forest where a number of highly sought-after species have been seen including Rail-babbler, Garnet and Giant Pittas, Short-toed Coucal and Rufous-tailed Shama. When I visited in March 2003 I also saw Bushy-crested and White-crowned Hornbills in this area. Probably the worst aspect of this trail is the fact that it is infested by leeches; I was covered in them by the time I got out of the forest here and my socks saturated in blood - leech socks would be very helpful!

Sirintorn Waterfall : Many Whiskered Treeswifts can be seen as one walks down the road towards this waterfall, and Orange-backed Flowerpecker is frequent in the smaller trees. However, the main reason to visit this waterfall is to find Chestnut-naped Forktail which is frequently observed at the base of the waterfall. Look carefully as it can be surprisingly easy to miss! Mornings and late afternoons are the best time to see this species as sometimes visitors play in the water here during the day; not a bad idea when it gets very hot!


Spectacled Spiderhunter
(Photos by Peter Ericsson)
 

Viewpoints : These two viewpoints, where there are shelters in rather a poor state of repair, provide some of the birding highlights of the Wildlife Sanctuary as well as views across some very beautiful forest. Hornbills can often be seen flying over the forest, with Helmeted and Rhinoceros Hornbills being regularly seen and providing a fantastic sight. I had a lot of success with Woodpeckers at these locations in 2003, seeing Buff-rumped, Buff-necked and Olive-backed Woodpeckers within a few minutes of each other.

Lots of other southern specialities can be found feeding in trees in these areas with Chestnut-backed Scimitar Babbler, numerous Bulbuls, Minivets and the rather unspectacular Brown Fulvetta all occurring. The first of the two viewpoints provides the best vistas across the forest making it a good place to look out for soaring raptors, Blyth's and Wallace's Hawk Eagles being the regional specialities.

Temple : A short trail runs from the back of this forest temple, along a small stream which leads to a small pond and eventually to a village. There is some nice forest along here and it is quite moist, attracting many exciting lowland specialist species such as Temminck's Sunbird, Chestnut-rumped Babbler, Spotted Fantail and Little Bronze Cuckoo. Some birdwatchers have been lucky enough to find Malaysian Rail-babbler along here and there have been a few reports of Daird's Trogon from the small pond, but I'm not sure how reliable these are as they came from local youngsters. However, this is certainly a good spot to sit and wait for birds to come down to drink.   
 Facilities
 
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The facilities at this Wildlife sanctuary are few but sufficient. It is possible to stay at the research station where there are some simple but comfortable rooms, although I understand that these aren't usually available to the public. However, when I turned up with my girlfriend we were allowed to stay in one of the unoccupied rooms and it was left up to us how much we donated for using this. Most people, if arriving independently, are left to use the campsite which is downhill of the guest rooms. There is no food available at the research station, one must bring food, water and cooking equipment sufficient for the stay.

The small village near the temple has a small foodstall where noodles and simple rice dishes are served in daylight hours and there is another small shop which sells basic provisions and cooked food can be arranged. People in this village are friendly and my girlfriend and I were invited in to eat with a family who had food left over from a wedding party!

Some people have preferred to stay in Sungai Kolok and drive into the forest every day and whilst there are some decent hotels there I wouldn't recommend this for security concerns and for the inconvenience of the journey. However, all sorts of food and drink provisions can be bought in Sungai Kolok for one's stay at Bala and there is a border crossing for travel into/from Malaysia.

 Donations

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 Other Related Pages

Birdwatching Tours

Other Southern Thailand Birding Locations

Unrest in the South claims the Life of Foreigner

Jan Wilczur's Bird Art: Gurney's Pitta, Banded Pitta & Rufous-collared Kingfisher

 Trip Reports

Hala-Bala & KNC, 21-23rd April 2003 

Hala-Bala, 12-17th May 2005

 

by Peter Ericsson

by Hanno Stamm

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