Like Clockwork

16 10 2014

A first male Eastern Marsh Harrier of the winter appeared last night in the rice paddy here in Ratchaburi. Sporting a very pronounced white rump with “salt and pepper” uppers, the harrier was happily quartering the rice paddy in search of prey. A few moments later I got a view of possibly a different harrier flying away from me, this one appearing bigger sporting a white rump but lacking the streaking. It might have been the same bird with my view distorted by light and position but it may also have been a female Pied Harrier. Whatever, it is wonderful to welcome harriers back to the rice paddy and their arrival comes at roughly the same time as previous years. This timeliness never ceases to amaze me.

Not to be outdone there were also a number of Black-browed Reed Warblers in the scrub and reeds which align both sides of the rice paddy’s irrigation canals. I sighted two but there were definitely more distinguishable by their short, monosyllabic, punctuated chirp.

As I strolled along in the late afternoon warmth, a pleasant change from the recent, abundant rain, my movement flushed a Black Bittern from deep inside the scrub – black body with long, yellow throat streaking clearly visible, a  rare sighting of this skulker. A number of Yellow Bitterns showed briefly and more could be heard. There were also large numbers of Blue-tailed Bee-eaters whose call provided the acoustic background.

Elsewhere, on Monday, a brief trip to Pala-u Waterfall, the southern extremity of Kaeng Krachan National Park in Phetchaburi province, produced a Crimson Sunbird and a Yellow-breasted Trogon. I don’t know if either is a lifer as my notebook crashed a few weeks ago and so I have been without access to my files.

Back to Laem Pak Bia

24 08 2014

With a high tide scheduled for a about 1830 I thought there would be nothing better than an afternoon at Laem Pak Bia, especially as waders are now on the move. I fancied trying to add Little Stint to my list as it has been reported in recent weeks from Laem and from Kok Kham.

On arrival just after 1400 it was hot and sunny and smallish groups of waders were already coming in off the coastal flats, notably Black-tailed Godwits interspersed with small numbers of Common  Redshanks. A couple of Lesser Sand-plovers, still showing some breeding plumage, were playing on a dry sand bank. Overhead Curlew Sandpipers were coming in off the sea.  A solitary Spot-billed Pelican was listlessly gliding around the big pond …. As the afternoon continued a further five Spot-billed Pelicans came down in the same pond.  The unmistakable sight of two of these huge birds high in the sky got me wondering how on earth they navigate.  How did they know to come down at that spot?

It was so pleasant, with a decent breeze coming in off the sea, that I got out the deck chair and sat out in the sun for an hour. There were about 200 Black-tailed Godwits scattered around and there is always the possibility of finding an Asian Dowitcher in amongst them at this time of year or even a Bar-tailed Godwit. So I got the scope out but nothing jumped out.

There were Common  Greenshanks, Common Redshanks, a few Spotted Redshanks,  one Marsh Sandpiper but not much else. I took advantage of the conditions to recap on separating Common and Spotted Redshanks. Probably the easiest way is the Spotted’s lack of a white patch on their secondaries. But to use that they have got to be flying. Elsewhere good numbers of Painted Stork but no sign of Milky.

At about 1600 I went into the King’s Project. Some of the Pond Herons were still showing enough color to enable Chinese to be distinguished from Javan. Lots of Indian Shags many of which were still in breeding plumage, showing the diagnostic white tuft behind their eyes.  I got the digiscope rig set up and, using the truck as cover, took advantage of the opportunities to get in close.

Nothing of great significance on the bird front.  Three Streaked Weavers were bathing in the recently hacked down
reed beds in amongst the usual suspects.  There were two Long-Toed Stints in other ponds.

I went on to the Abandoned Building at about 1730. With hopes of a Little Stint I drew a complete blank – not a solitary wader.  So I headed back to Laem Pak Bia for the last light of the day. There were two candidates for Little Stint in  wet sand but in the fading light any call would have been wishful thinking on my part.  As I got my tripod out they flew. Probably Red-necked Stints.

Huay Mai Teng – a Real Gem

14 06 2014
River Lapwing Huay Mai Teng Reservoir Ratchaburi Province 14.06.14

River Lapwing
Huay Mai Teng Reservoir
Ratchaburi Province

The last two Saturdays I headed to Huay Mai Teng reservoir early morning and on both days River Lapwing did not disappoint. Last Saturday five appeared today six and I managed to get close enough today to get a shot or two; not good shots because the light was very poor. I went early today to check out the Savanna Nightjar situation. Arriving at about 0530h the first signs of the day were emerging but not a sound of a Savanna Nightjar; rather the  pleasant, tuneful calls of Rain Quail, Plain Prinia, Yellow-bellied Prinia interspersed with the neurotic, almost irritating screech of Red-wattled Lapwing.

A quick spin round to the main launch area as day broke put me immediately onto two, then four, then six River Lapwing. One was appreciably bulkier and appeared taller making me think maybe a mother and her brood. I had them all to myself for twenty minutes and just enjoyed the action. An Oriental Skylark performed in the air. A Small Pratincole parked on its own while bigger and noisier Oriental Pratincoles flew over high up. A perfect peaceful morning far away from the cares and concerns of everyday life.

Last Saturday I heard the wonderful sound of a distant Chinese Francolin. Heart-warming as I feared we had seen the last of the species at this site. So I went off to look for it this week. Not a sound to be heard but I almost drove over a Barred Buttonquail. Then I had clear views of a pair of Rain Quail. Indochinese Bushlark appeared to be the default species. A Yellow-eyed Babbler put in a brief appearance among a load of nesting Baya and Asian Golden Weavers. On the way out  a pair of Barred Buttonquail crossed over in front of me. I waited unsuccessfully for them to reappear.

So a stunning morning.

River Lapwing to Order

25 05 2014

This morning just after 0600h five River Lapwing were flying low over Huay Mai Teng Reservoir when I arrived at the launch area;unfortunately they were flying away! But not a problem – they were undoubtedly River Lapwing and that was all I was really concerned with. There will hopefully be plenty of opportunities to get to see them in the next few months. They usually stay until about mid-August. They are back bang on time –  in previous years about May 22nd. I only saw one last year but  that was virtually on the same day. Five today bodes well. It’s a great mystery to me how birds can be so predictable.

Elsewhere the big story is further development at the site this time on the east side where major water works are under way. A huge amount of plant is involved in digging out what look like large reservoirs so more habitat is being lost. In fairness this area is under water for about two thirds of the year so perhaps not too much impact. This is the area where I have seen a lot of good birds including Chinese Francolin – there was once a a leafy lane leading to the reservoir where virtually no one but locals ever went. That is gone now as trucks thunder up and down from the building site.

On the bird front loads of Rain Quail, including sightings of about eight which were out in the open feeding. However the most striking feature is the call and basically I could hear Rain Quail everywhere I stopped to bird this morning. A few Small Pratincoles were present but not in significant numbers and certainly not in anything approaching the numbers seen in previous years. Their previous breeding site is now being used for the same purpose by Oriental Pratincoles. In this area I had the joy today of observing a tiny Little RInged Plover chick taking its first steps under parental supervision.

No sign of Savanna Nightjar today but they may be because it was virtually daylight when I arrived and they had taken to their day roosts.

It was really hot and sticky today and flies were a huge problem for the first time I can recall. A pair of Pied Kingfishers, a Yellow-eyed Babbler and a Barred Buttonquai were also of note.

Two for One!

24 05 2014

My thanks to Dave Sargent for telling me to get down to Kaeng Krachan for a Schrenck’s Bittern. It was a cinch in the finest tradition of drive-in birding. Thanks also to Tom Backlund for getting me up the hill. We get out of the truck, headed to small pool and Tom said: “There it is” and sure enough there it was. This is a bird Phil Round is hoping to catch on migration at Koh Man Nai but so far it hasn’t obliged. A beauty and a real Thai rarity in recent years. Like many bitterns it very helpfully perches motionless for extended periods of time as it eyes its prey. This allows for photographs in otherwise difficult light conditions. I was shooting on a two second delay with a shutter speed of 1/5 of a second. Anyhow I got a shot and can’t ask for more.



Von Schrenck’s Bittern
Kaeng Krachan National Park
Petchaburi Province

For good measure a pair of stunning Long-tailed Broadbills were servicing a nest overhanging the pond so it really was a brilliant twitch – two lifers in one fell swoop. Nearby a Mountain Imperial Pigeon was fluttering about – a really large ungainly bird. We progressed to the top at Panoen Thung Camp and I was really shocked by the crowds milling around waiting to descend. Hundreds of people – I have never seen the park so busy. We saw an Ashy and Flavescent Bulbul but little else. We headed down the mountain and in view of the crowds along the streams we simply left though the calls of Green Magpie and Silver-breasted Broadbills were clearly audible.



Koh Man Nai, Part 2: Some Better Science?!

24 05 2014
Blue-winged Pitta Koh Man Nai Island Rayong Province 28.04.14

Blue-winged Pitta
Koh Man Nai Island
Rayong Province

To be honest I’m lost for superlatives in order to describe this latest stint on Koh Man Nai as part of Phil Round’s ringing operation. This time a  comparatively short stay of five nights allowed for four and a half days of ringing between 25 – 30 April 2014. And the birds just kept coming and coming with our penultimate capture being a Ferruginous Flycatcher, not a bird I would feel confident about seeing or identifying in the wild. Likewise the first rarity of this stint: a Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher; in fact we processed about ten of these.

Tiger Shrike Koh Man Nai Rayong Province 26.04.14

Tiger Shrike
Koh Man Nai
Rayong Province

In amongst the pittas and flycatchers, the bird which made the biggest impression on me, and on my fingers, was the Tiger Shrike: a flash git with an insatiable appetite for death and destruction! It swoops and kills, a real thug and bully. I watched it slaughter a cricket and we gathered the remains of a number of smaller birds which had been “shriked”. For this reason we were very active in checking the nets.

Little Bunting Koh Man Nai Island Rayong Province 27.04.14

Little Bunting
Koh Man Nai Island
Rayong Province


Tiger Shrikes seemed to be everywhere on the island and of course we netted a fair few, so undoubtedly  a major passage in terms of volume for what is otherwise an uncommon bird in Thailand. Believe me, extricating these monsters from the net and then ringing them was at times an agonising process and all our fingers bear the evidence of their assault on us. Of course getting the bird in the ringer’s grip is the key to avoiding pain: neck between index and middle fingers of left hand, while the rest of the hand keeps the wings under control. As I learned, however, Tiger attacks the soft flesh, gets it trapped in its bill and starts to yank and pull. Agony! I can’t think any other bird I have handled which presents such a challenge – those beautiful Ruddy Kingfishers with their impressive, long “stogies”  can grab skin but it is painless and nothing more than a scrape. Tiger for all its savagery is a bonnie bird and it was good to get close to it in such numbers.

Chestnut-winged Cuckoo Koh Man Nai Island Rayong Province 28.04.14

Chestnut-winged Cuckoo
Koh Man Nai Island
Rayong Province

Lizards were also predating the spring traps we had set for ground birds: Blue-winged Pittas in abundance and a fair few thrushes. My only sense of disappointment was not to get a Fairy Pitta but we did get plenty of Blue-winged and a few Hooded. I completely understand why pittas captivate so many birders’ imaginations. I was amazed to see the Blue-winged Pittas feeding around our quarters and they could usually be seen on the ground when we did net rounds.

Andy Pierce has “eagle” eyes and he spotted a Little Bunting one morning flying around the concrete sides of the small reservoir/water trap. I don’t believe I had ever seen any species of bunting in Thailand until then and it was kind enough to hang around for long enough to enable a shot or too. Always nice to see these birds in the wild as opposed to in the net, although it would have been nice to net it and get it in the hand.

Yours truly showing signs of old age and dementia!

Yours truly showing signs of old age and dementia!

Just simply an amazing experience and opportunity; some more birds that were processed during these few days: Chinese Blue Flycatcher (female), Japanese Paradise Flycatcher, Siberian Thrush, Large Hawk Cuckoo, Chestnut-winged Cuckoo, Slaty-legged Crake, Ruddy Kingfisher, Black-capped Kingfisher ( a first for the ringing operation), Lanceolated Warbler, White-throated Rockthrush(female), Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler and a particualr pleasure to handle a Black-browed Reed Warbler.  Interestingly the flight of Sakhalin Leaf Warbler appeared to be over with Pale-legged Leaf Warblers being the dominant species.

Some (Bad!) Science

24 03 2014
Malayan Night-heron (in the hand) Ko Man Nai, Rayong District

Malayan Night-heron (in the hand)
Ko Man Nai, Rayong District

An unexpected benefit of being on a long school break was being able to join Phil Round and Andy Pierce for four days netting and ringing birds on Ko Man Nai during 17 – 22 March 2014. This really was field biology as opposed to birding and for me it was a huge learning opportunity.

Malayan Night-heron (in the hand)Ko Man Nai, Rayong District21.03.14

Malayan Night-heron (in the hand)
Ko Man Nai, Rayong District

Ko Man Nai is a small island situated a short boat ride off the coast of Rayong province in Thailand’s south-eastern seaboard. It is the first landfall for migratory birds whose north bound trajectory during “spring” takes them across the Gulf of Thailand from Malaysia and Sumatra, Indonesia. (“Spring” in Thailand and South-east Asia is in fact the beginning of hottest part of the year.) From a bird watching perspective I and many other birders have been salivating at the list of new and rare birds found on the island during “spring”migration over the last two years. Mid-April is generally considered to be the peak migration period so this visit was scheduled in mid-March to enable study of early migration.


White's Thrush (in the hand)Ko Man Nai, Rayong Province21.03.14

White’s Thrush (in the hand)
Ko Man Nai, Rayong Province

The island comes under the management of the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources so it has not been developed for tourism, and more pertinently the island hasn’t been degraded by it. Its  raison d’être today is it provides a home to an extensive captive turtle breeding and release programme.It’s a very peaceful,relaxing sort of place – a joy to land at the pier and proceed onwards without having to wade through a throng of touts intent on redistribution.

Ruddy Kingfisher (in the hand)Ko Man Nai, Rayong Province19.03.14

Ruddy Kingfisher (in the hand)
Ko Man Nai, Rayong Province

For four days we caught birds in fixed mist nets, extracting and moving them to a processing station where we ringed them by fixing a small, lightweight band to their tarsus, and then measuring and recording their biometrics before releasing them back into the forest and in most cases their onward, northbound migration. So what is this all about?

Hainan Blue Flycatcher(in the hand)Ko Man Nai, Rayong Province20.03.14

Zappy’s Flycatcher Hainan Blue Flycatcher (in the hand)
edited 16.05.14 Ko Man Nai, Rayong Province



In the first instance catching the birds is a far more reliable method of establishing the true diversity of species in a given area. That is, more reliable than sight records.  This is, if you like, an interface between conservation and ecology. Secondly there are species which are very difficult to separate from each other in the field, for example, those in the phylloscopus or acrocephalus genera. Thirdly it is possible to create a dataset: birds were sexed and aged and a range of other biometric data was recorded:  weight and measurements of bill, wing and feathers, etc. This data, inter alia, informs conservation and ecological considerations. Fourthly every bird is fitted with a band with a unique numeric identifier and geolocation details. A sort of ‘message in a bottle’ : “I want to know if you find this bird”. This is where it gets particularly interesting as this enables the possibility of “retraps” to be identified. This, inter alia, provides comparative data. Every now and then a banded bird is trapped in another part of the region or, vice versa,  a bird is “retrapped” that has been banded or flagged elsewhere. This provides information about bird movements and migration.

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Hodgson’s Hawk Cuckoo (in the hand)
Ko Man Nai, Rayong Province

The British Trust for Ornithology (‘BTO’) website offers a very succinct summary of ringing:

Blue and WHite FlycatcherKo Man Nai, Rayong District20.03.14

Blue and WHite Flycatcher
Ko Man Nai, Rayong District

“Ringing aims to understand what is happening to birds in the places they live and how this affects population increases and decreases, this knowledge is vital for conservation. It also gives information on the movements individual birds make and how long many live for.”

Himalayan Cuckoo (in the hand)Ko Man Nai, Rayong Province18.03.14

Himalayan Cuckoo (in the hand)
Ko Man Nai, Rayong Province

I guess I am becoming a reasonably competent ringer: I am reasonably confident handling small to medium sized birds. The most difficult part of the whole process for me is extracting the birds from the mist nets. Sometimes a fair amount of unfankling ( Scots for undoing!)  is required. Birds trapped in nets can understandably get very agitated and so this is an area I gladly leave to the experts. I should add that everything I do is supervised.

Sakhalin Leaf-warbler(in the hand)Ko Man Nai, Rayong District18.03.14

Sakhalin Leaf-warbler(in the hand)
Ko Man Nai, Rayong District

It is important to stress that at every stage of the process the bird’s welfare is paramount. Furthermore the nets are constantly checked to both minimise the amount of time birds are in the nets and to minimise predation from other birds like raptors. I doubt whether any of the 83 birds we trapped were in captivity for longer than 40 minutes during our session.

malayannight01 056From a birding perspective the highlights of the trapped birds were: a Malayan Night-heron, a Ruddy Kingfisher,  Siberian Thrush (3), a White’s Thrush and a number of Eye-browed Thrush, Sakhalin and Pale-legged Leaf Warblers, Eastern Crowned Warbler, a Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, a Hodgson’s Hawk Cuckoo, a Himalayan Cuckoo, Asian Drongo Cuckoo, Crow-billed Drongo, an Asian Paradise Flycatcher, a Zappy’s Flycatcher, a Blue and White Flycatcher and a Hainan Flycatcher. These are all migrants.

Update 16.05.14 On my return to Koh Man Nai Phil Round let me know my photo of a Zappy’s Flycatcher was in fact a Hainan Blue Flycatcher! So maybe some bad science! Certainly some lousy identification but it’s not the first time and I can assert confidently it will not be the last.

White's Thrush(in the hand)Ko Man Nai, Rayong District21.03.14

White’s Thrush(in the hand)
Ko Man Nai, Rayong District

Of course there were great birds at large which included a Red-billed Starling (third Thai record thanks to Andy Pierce), Daurian Starling, Grey-headed Lapwing, a number of Dollarbirds, Swinhoe’s Minivet, Blue Rockthrush, Grey Wagtail and Forest Wagtail.

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I added fourteen (!) lifers to my list so very productive in this respect.

hodgsonshawkcuckoo02 051

From a scientific perspective the main finding was that Sakhalin Leaf-warbler appears to be the default species passing through the island on migration. I’ll spare the details here but I think the data will enable some scientific papers to be written in due course.

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Finally grateful thanks to Phil Round and Andy Pierce for allowing me to tag along.


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