Thailand: Jewels of the South Trip Report, January 2015

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This year we had two birders sign up for the South Thailand trip. For Laurel it was her first trip to Southeast Asia, so almost everything was on her target list. At the other end of the spectrum was Carole, who is on a mission to see the kingfishers of the world, and she had three targets in mind: Brown-winged Kingfisher, Blue-banded Kingfisher, and Rufous-collared Kingfisher.


Day 1. Phang Nga Mangroves

As Laurel and Carole had only checked into their hotel in the early hours, we had a mid-morning pickup from a hotel near Phuket airport. We drove to our hotel in Phang Nga to drop off our bags. Golden-bellied Gerygone came in to call at the hotel. This is the only bird in the area that has adapted to rubber plantations.

Our first birding stop was at the Ao Phang Nga National Park headquarters area. Things were quiet, as it was the middle of the day, but on the short boardwalk we found Arctic Warbler and Olive-winged Bulbul. Rufous-bellied Swallows, Pacific Swallows, and Red-rumped Swallows were active at various heights above the river. A Mangrove Pitta called from across the river, and although a Brown-winged Kingfisher called nearby, we saw neither of them.

We ate our lunch at a restaurant balcony and saw Blue-tailed Bee-eater catching insects. A Yellow Bittern flew across a pond.

After lunch we visited Baan Bang Phat Mangroves. We heard another Brown-winged Kingfisher from the car park, but again it would not come in. Whimbrels, Pacific Reef Herons, and Great Egrets were feeding on the mud banks, and Brahminy Kites circled above. Collared Kingfisher and two Black-capped Kingfishers showed nicely.

The first part of the boardwalk was deadly quiet, but once we got a couple of hundred meters in, things picked up. A flock of small birds came through, giving us brief looks at Ruby-cheeked Sunbird, Eastern Crowned Warbler, and Oriental White-eye. The rarely-seen Copper-throated Sunbird gave us the run-around but finally stayed still long enough to get our binoculars onto it. This bird often just looks black, but thankfully it sat in good light, so we got to appreciate its various colors.

We heard another Brown-winged Kingfisher call, and this time it came in and showed very well. One down for Carole! As we got to the end of the boardwalk, a Black-and-red Broadbill was heard. After a couple of minutes two birds came in.

A little down the road we stopped at an abandoned shrimp pond to look for crakes and rails. None were seen, but the area was jumping with birds, including Western Osprey, Black-winged Kite, Jungle Myna, White-throated Kingfisher, Large-billed Crow, Indian Roller, Yellow-vented Bulbul, Streak-eared Bulbul, Brown Shrike, Scaly-breasted Munia, and Greater Coucal.

Day 2. Ton Pariwat Wildlife Sanctuary, Thai Muang Beach, and Laem Pakarang

We woke up to a wet morning and a power cut. After breakfast by candlelight we made our way up to Ton Pariwat Wildlife Sanctuary. The birds were active, but anything high up had to be put in the scope, as the light was not good. At the first stop we had Dark-necked Tailorbird, Crimson Sunbird, Orange-bellied Flowerpecker, Crimson-breasted Flowerpecker, and Yellow-breasted Flowerpecker. Dark-sided Flycatcher and Asian Brown Flycatcher sat together to allow comparison. A single Black-and-yellow Broadbill came through, as did a Verditer Flycatcher. We called in a female Banded Kingfisher, which we all enjoyed through the scope. A group of Everett’s White-eyes then came, followed by an Asian Fairy-bluebird.

A little later we walked the road and found a Crested Honey Buzzard on a snag. A mixed flock came through low, giving us good looks at White-bellied Erpornis and Swinhoe’s Minivet. A couple of Sooty Barbets were seen as we approached the headquarters.

Near the headquarters Games found a lar gibbon in the open, but it was rather distant.

During lunch we watched Scarlet-backed Flowerpeckers feeding in a fruiting tree next to our table.

Our next stop was the beach area at Thai Muang, where we quickly found our target, two Spotted Wood Owls at their day roost. One relocated as we approached, but the other stayed and allowed us to get some photos. The one that flew soon regretted it, as the local crow gang kept giving chase. Also picked up in the area were Lineated Barbet, Vernal Hanging Parrot, and Grey-faced Buzzard.

An hour further north we stopped again, this time for shore birds at Laem Pakarang. As we arrived we noticed a few Thai photographers, who had come down from Bangkok for the Crab Plover which had been in the area for a few weeks. Bad news, though: although it had been seen in the morning, no-one had seen it since. The tide was well out, which meant the birds were well dispersed. We also failed to find the Grey-tailed Tattler, and the Malaysian Plover flew before Laurel or Carol got onto it. We did see Greater Sand Plover, Lesser Sand Plover, Grey Plover, Terek Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint, and Whimbrel. We decided to try and squeeze in another visit later for the ones we had missed.

Day 3. Koh Phra Thong and Sri Phang Nga National Park

At 6:30 a.m. we boarded a boat to the island of Koh Phra Thong, just a twenty-minute journey from the mainland. The main target was Lesser Adjutant, but as the area is rarely birded we were hoping for something special. The main problem here is that it is very exposed and tends to get hot quickly, so we knew we didn’t have much time.

The first few hundred meters of the walk produced only a pair of Greater Racket-tailed Drongos, but then we noticed some movement in a tree ahead of us. Green Pigeons, but females, so difficult to identify, then a male – fantastic – Cinnamon-headed Green Pigeon, a real rarity! This was probably only the third or fourth record for Thailand, and it turns out that it had only been photographed here once before (even those photos had been lost in a flood). When we published our sighting it caused a major twitch, with even the most experienced birders and photographers in Thailand visiting the tree over the next couple of weeks.

We were then picked up by the local transport, a mini tractor towing a trailer with six seats on it. We went off to look in some other fruiting trees, but only managed to flush some Thick-billed Green Pigeons. Things were now getting hot, so we decided to concentrate on the adjutant. We first had a brief flight view as one Lesser Adjutant got away from us, but then as we rounded a corner we spotted some walking through the forest. Luckily they came right up to us and we spent a couple of minutes with them, until they moved off.

During lunch one of our hosts mentioned that someone had brought him a Sunda pangolin the previous day and he brought it out to show us. It had no fear and started wandering around our feet, feeding on red ants. It was to be released the next day in a safe area away from local collector/hunters.

On the way back to the mainland a White-bellied Sea Eagle swept by.

The afternoon was spent at Sri Phang Nga National Park, looking for tricky birds at known stakeouts. Malayan Banded Pitta was found quickly, together with Orange-headed Thrush, Abbott’s Babbler, and White-rumped Shama. Harder to locate and then to move onto was Gould’s Frogmouth. Both locations involved some difficult terrain, and we were glad to all get back to the car without mishap.

Back at the hotel a fruiting tree was full of Thick-billed Flowerpeckers.

It was a short list of birds we had seen during the day, but it included quite a few birds that are rarely seen.

Day 4. Sri Phang Nga National Park, Laem Pakarang, and Kapong Bridge

This morning was another chance to look for Carole’s kingfishers. We started at the headquarters area to eat breakfast and look out for hornbills. Games spotted a large nest high up on the hillside, and we were watching an adult and a young Wallace’s Hawk-Eagle move around it for a few minutes. Taiga Flycatcher was found behind the restaurant. This is rare in South Thailand, but we often find it here. Paddyfield Pipits fed on the lawn, together with Chinese Pond Herons.

At 8 a.m., when the gate opened, we drove to the end of the track, where we found a Forest Wagtail on the road. Whiskered Treeswifts and Silver-rumped Spinetails were active over the dam, and a group of Bushy-crested Hornbills landed in the tree above us. Wreathed Hornbills were also in the area and flew past us three times.

At the start of the waterfall trail a pair of Red-billed Malkohas looked fine in the early morning sun. The trail was quiet, though, with no sign of the kingfishers. Grey-eyed Bulbuls and Chestnut-breasted Malkoha moved around the mid canopy, and low down we spotted three or four White-crowned Hornbills next to the stream, taking fruit from a small tree.

Back at the car park a pair of Maroon Woodpeckers made plenty of noise but showed badly, and a Plain Sunbird took nectar from a flowering tree.

We took a long lunch break at a beach resort, where Laurel took a massage and Carole caught up with her bird records.

Next up was a revisit to Laem Pakarang to chase down the birds we missed a couple of days ago.  Out near the end of the sand spit we found a male Malaysian Plover, but no Crab Plover. The only other new shorebird was a Bar-tailed Godwit. We had to bolt to the car as a heavy shower hit us, so we had no chance to look for the tattler.

At Kapong Bridge we found two River Lapwings, two Common Greenshanks, and a Grey Heron.

After dinner we went owling. A Brown Wood Owl called back from across the valley but would not come in.

Day 5. Khao Sok National Park

After a light breakfast we birded the headquarters area and the main trail at Khao Sok National Park. A Banded Bay Cuckoo responded well, but the mist made good views difficult. A group of Chestnut-winged Babblers came in close and showed us their blue throat patches. The Rufous-fronted Babblers were a little harder to get onto, but a Red-bearded Bee-eater posed for ten minutes with a cicada in its mouth. It must have had a nest on the bank beneath the trail. Other birds seen included Ochraceous Bulbul and Yellow-bellied Warbler. But still no sign of the Rufous-collared Kingfisher.

Next we drove east towards the pier, from where we got a boat to Khlong Saeng Wildlife Sanctuary, one of Southeast Asia’s most pristine forests. Here the accommodation is basic, but the scenery more than makes up for it. We went right to the back of the sanctuary to look for Bat Hawk near their nest, but failed to find any. Along the way, though, we saw many Western Ospreys, a few Lesser Fish Eagles, and one Grey-headed Fish Eagle, which allowed us to get very close. We enjoyed watching a Lesser Fish Eagle try to steal a large fish from a White-bellied Sea Eagle.

We added two more hornbills to our list with Oriental Pied Hornbill and Great Hornbill. We surprised a lesser Oriental chevrotain on the lakeside as it emerged from the water, and a little later a sambar watched us drift by. As we headed for home two Bat Hawks flew by in the half light.

A short night ride in the boat added Buffy Fish Owl to our list. A young bird sat on a bamboo pole, screeching at its parents to bring some dinner.

Day 6. Khao Sok National Park and Khao Luang National Park

At first light we were back in the boat, enjoying the scenery as the morning unfolded. Games had heard the Rufous-collared Kingfisher calling from across the inlet, so we went over and tried to call it out. It responded well, but we couldn’t see it through the dense forest edge. However, three Helmeted Hornbills did come in and flew across our bow, which meant we had seen all six species of hornbills in the area. A pair of Bamboo Woodpeckers gave us the run-around but finally emerged from the forest for fly-by looks. As we arrived back at our rooms a Crested Goshawk performed its display flight right in front of us.

During breakfast a lar gibbon showed us who was the local boss by performing a song-and-swing routine in an emergent tree, and right in the next tree a black giant squirrel took a peaceful nap.

Most of the rest of the day was taken up with the boat trip back to the pier and the transfer to Krung Ching Waterfall Station at Khao Luang National Park. But we had an hour or so before dusk to look around the entrance road to the park, where we found Two-barred Warbler, a pair of Golden-whiskered Barbets, a few Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrikes, and a Crimson Sunbird.

After dinner we walked the entrance road again and managed to get onto a Blyth’s Frogmouth.

Day 7. Khao Luang Krung Ching Waterfall Station, Khao Luang National Park

We had decided to spend our first full day here birding the entrance road. It was a bright, sunny morning with little mist, and the birds were very active. One of those rare days in the forest where there was always something going on! We started at the top of the hill, and first in were Great Iora and Green Iora. Across the road a Rosy Minivet came through, with some Swinhoe’s Minivets also. Two Grey-and-buff Woodpeckers flew around, and a pair of Banded Woodpeckers worked the trees next to the road. While we were scanning a tree top for a Banded Broadbill, a Violet Cuckoo landed in full view. Both Raffles’s Malkoha and Black-bellied Malkoha came through.

A little further down the road three Buff-rumped Woodpeckers posed on the same branch, and a Rufous Piculet flitted from one side of the road to the other. A female Dark-throated Oriole looked for insects in a clump of fruit, and Bronzed Drongos hawked for flying insects.

We then got off the road and climbed down into the valley below to look for Rufous-collared Kingfisher, where after thirty minutes of searching we finally found one.

Our afternoon walk was much less productive. There was a drizzle, and the light was bad. The only bird added to the list was Rufous-tailed Tailorbird.

Day 8. Krung Ching Waterfall Station, Khao Luang National Park

Trail day. After looking at photographs it turned out that the first critter seen was the very rare (for Thailand) horse-tailed squirrel. Our first few birds were heard, though they would not come in, which proved very frustrating. Finally a male Chinese Blue Flycatcher showed well. Things continued slowly, but we managed to get Rufous-winged Philentoma, Yellow-breasted Flowerpecker, and Grey-cheeked Bulbul. A small group of Black-throated Babblers performed well, but the biggest surprise was getting onto a pair of Fluffy-backed Tit-Babblers. Although these birds often show well elsewhere, they always seem shy at Krung Ching.

After a snack lunch we went off to trawl for the Rail-babbler. We didn’t have much hope, as it hadn’t been seen yet this season. After thirty minutes we heard one calling in the distance, so we quickly set up a hide. Games found a termite nest and put some grubs on the trail, but it took another hour before the bird showed. It stayed around for a few minutes, so everyone had good views. While we were waiting for it to come in, a flock was very active around us. Many birds were heard, but as we were concentrating on the Rail-babbler, only Hairy-backed Bulbul and Asian Paradise Flycatcher were seen.

On the walk out Orange-breasted Trogon and White-bellied Erpornis were seen, and Black Hornbill was heard. Also seen was a shrew-faced squirrel.

Up at the “bus stop” a fruiting tree in the distance must have had fifty Thick-billed Green Pigeons and twenty stump-tailed macaques feeding in it.

Day 9. Nakhon Si Thammarat and Thale Noi Waterbird Park

As it was raining when we got up, and the forecast was bad for the next few hours, we decided to drive down to the marshes outside Nakhon Si Thammarat and try our luck there. We managed a couple of hours of birding between the showers and picked up three birds we weren’t expecting – Eurasian Wryneck (possibly the most southerly record to date), Large Hawk-Cuckoo, and Racket-tailed Treepie, the last bird being the first time we had seen it in south Thailand. Other birds seen included Cinnamon Bittern, Asian Openbill, Oriental Reed Warbler, White-rumped Munia, Common Kingfisher, and Lesser Coucal.

The next weather to upset our plans was a strong wind at Thale Noi, so we postponed our planned boat trip on the lake and instead birded from the elevated road which spans the marshland. We stopped a few times at the pull-in areas along the road to scan the marshes. Most interesting were about twenty Brown-headed Gulls and one Black-headed Gull (probably the second record for south Thailand). Many other more common birds were found, including Eastern Marsh Harrier, Jungle Myna, Little Ringed Plover, Pacific Golden Plover, Intermediate Egret, Purple Heron, Black-winged Stilt, Whiskered Tern, and Sand Martin. As we cruised the road we also found Bronze-winged Jacana and Pheasant-tailed Jacana.

Day 10. Thale Noi Waterbird Park and Peninsular Botanical Gardens

We spent the first two hours of the day on a small boat pottering around the lake. Nothing of note was seen, but it was nice getting up close to Purple Swamphens, White-winged Terns, Cotton Pygmy Geese, and Blue-tailed Bee-eaters. Barn Swallows flew beside the boat and fed on the insects we were putting up.

A short walk along the road next to the marshes also produced nothing except better views of some of the previous day’s birds.

We then transferred to a small patch of forest south of Trang called the Peninsular Botanic Garden. We never get a long list there but usually find something good. As it was early afternoon when we started our walk, the forest was quiet, but as we approached the canopy walkway we heard a barbet calling. We tuned in and by a process of elimination decided it must be Red-crowned Barbet. This bird is only known in the area from Khao Nor Chuchi, so we were very surprised. We quickly climbed the tower, got onto the platform at the start of the walkway, and called the bird in. It took a few minutes to get it where we wanted, but we ended up with excellent views and decent photos. A couple of walkway towers later we also called in a Van Hasselt’s Sunbird. It came in and started feeding just two meters from us, and we had fantastic views of what must be the most beautiful sunbird in the region. A little later in the swamp area we found a pair of Red-throated Barbets excavating a nest hole in a dead stump.

Day 11. Khao Nor Chuchi (KNC) and Krabi Mangroves

KNC is famous for Gurney’s Pitta, which unfortunately has now been lost again in Thailand. The forest is still worth visiting, though, for a few birds which are not found elsewhere in the area. We had an easy morning of walking the main road and the starts of the various trails along the way to try to call out the local specials. The going was slow, as it normally is, but we pulled in two Black-capped Babblers, which were happy to feed on the floor a few meters from us. Two Moustached Babblers came close at the same spot. Puff-backed Bulbul, our biggest bulbul, and Hairy-backed Bulbul, our smallest, came in consecutively on the roadside. A little further down Carole found some Yellow-bellied Bulbuls, and we got onto a male Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher on another trail. A Pale-legged Leaf Warbler managed to give us only the briefest of views as it moved away.

We started the afternoon at the Krabi mangrove boardwalk, hoping to find Mangrove Pitta. Nothing doing, the boardwalk was deathly quiet, so we took a boat out to the river mouth. The tide was high, and most of the waders were perching up in the mangroves and on poles in the mudflats. A group of Common Redshanks was found first, then some Whimbrels with a few Eurasian Curlews mixed in. We spent a lot of time checking out the greenshanks but could not find a Nordmann’s among them. Instead we had a Chinese Egret in full breeding plumage. There were about fifteen Lesser Crested Terns with one Greater Crested Tern at a fishing platform. On the way back to the pier we photographed Black-capped Kingfisher and Brown-winged Kingfisher.

Day 12. Khao Nor Chuchi and Krabi Mangroves

We had planned to walk trail “B” in the park, but the wooden bridge at the start of the trail was in a bad way and not safe to cross, so we drove further up the road and birded the main track. Three Brown-backed Needletails flew in formation above us, and an Orange-breasted Trogon perched in bad light high up. A pair of Rufous-crowned Babblers proved difficult to get onto, but we finally got them as they flitted from one side of the road to the other. Three or four Spectacled Spiderhunters fed in a flowering tree.

As the ladies were tired we had a long lunch break, and then our afternoon was scuppered when a grumpy monk wouldn’t let us through a temple to bird an area behind, which we had often done before. We instead went back to the Krabi Mangroves to look for Mangrove Pitta. At last light one started calling about 50 meters into the forest, but we couldn’t find it.

Day 13. Ban Nai Chong and Phang Nga Mangroves

As we were getting up we heard a pair of Brown Hawk-Owls calling in the garden, so we hurried out and found them. Luckily they were still there at the appointed meeting time. so everybody saw them.

The morning was spent on the forest trail at Baan Nai Chong. It was very birdy, but we had seen most of it before. It was a pleasant walk, though, with the highlights being great views of Orange-breasted Trogon and Green Broadbill. The surprise of the morning was a Green-backed Flycatcher, which showed well too. This is a rare winter visitor, and we only see a couple a year.

We moved on to the Phang Nga Mangroves in the afternoon to look for the birds we had missed on the first day. We spent most of the afternoon trawling for Mangrove Pitta but had no luck. Along the way, though, we called in a pair of Chestnut-bellied Malkohas, which we managed to get good photos of. We then bumped into another Thai photographer who had been out to Koh Phra Thong for the pigeon. He thanked us by showing us a young Greater Flameback in a nest hole.

Over at Queen’s Park we enjoyed a tree full of Pink-necked Green Pigeons and another full of Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters. Carole found a Blue Whistling Thrush, and Laurel attempted to photograph a House Swift.

Day 14. Phang Nga Mangroves and Thai Muang Marshes

The plan for the morning was to revisit the various mangrove sites in Phang Nga to look for the birds we were still missing.

We started at Ao Phang Nga National Park, where things started well with a pair of Common Flamebacks. We improved our views of the Greater Flamebacks and had another Brown-winged Kingfisher and an Ashy Minivet. Games found a pair of Streak-breasted Woodpeckers feeding at head height in a small palm tree. We all rushed around and spent a few minutes with them. No sign of Mangrove Pitta, so we moved on to Bang Phat Mangroves. There we quickly found Mangrove Whistler but nothing else that was new.

The highlight of the morning, however, was at Phang Nga Mangrove Park, where after only ten minutes we got onto a Mangrove Pitta sitting on a mangrove root. It headed for cover when it saw us, but we repositioned and had good views until it got bored and hopped off to start feeding again.

We had a short walk at the marshes at Thai Muang in the afternoon. There we added Common Snipe and Pintailed Snipe to the list, both of which were in the morning glory farm. Wood Sandpiper was there too, and we flushed a Black Bittern from a khlong (canal). A Large Hawk-Cuckoo was flying from perch to perch in a young rubber plantation.

It was then back to the airport hotel in Phuket to drop off Carole and Laurel. Carole had seen two of her target kingfishers and had added about 70 lifers to her 5500+ life list. Laurel had added over 200 birds to her rather shorter list.


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