Sunday, 24 December 1978

THAILAND December 1978: the south

Introduction.  I was fortunate to be invited on a trip to Kenya over Christmas 1977 (see  It was very successful, if a rather eye-opening experience, and one Peter Walton and I were keen to repeat the following winter.  In Kenya Chris Heard captivated us with several tales of his time in Thailand the previous winter and it seemed the ideal destination – it was relatively cheap, safe and had plenty of exotic birds including several sought after Siberian species that wintered there.  Andrew Moon was very keen on the idea as was Steve Whitehouse and the four of us booked flights and assembled what information we could.  This blog is taken from an old report I recently found and a few surviving slides taken on the trip, some which have aged less well than I have in the intervening years.

17 December 1978.  We landed at Don Muang airport about 08:00 after a comfortable Thai airways flight from Heathrow.  I didn’t have to wait long for my first new bird, seeing Black Drongo from the plane as we taxied towards the terminal.  We collected our bags, changed money and got a taxi into Bangkok where we stopped outside the first Car Hire firm we came to (Bangkok Car Rental in Wireless Road, there were none at the airport).  We hired a white Toyota Corolla for the incredible price of £50 each for a month.  Sorting tout the paperwork was interrupted by seeing Brown Flycatcher and Indian Roller, much to the locals amusement.  Andrew drove down the road to Lumpini Park where I saw 12 new birds in two hours including Brown Shrike, Shikra, Common Iora and Zebra Dove.  Also 10 Yellow-browed Warblers.  We then drove through Bangkok towards Bang Poo making several roadside stops on the way.  We spent the rest of the day at Bang Poo seeing lots of waders including Lesser Sand Plover and Red-necked and Long-toed Stints on the saltpans, Brown-headed Gulls from the pier and nothing during a venture into the mangroves.  Back at the car the key broke in the padlock of a security device attached to the brake pedal.  Various attempts to undo it failed, it was now dark and we were being bitten by mosquitoes – not the finish to the day we’d hoped for.  Andrew considered the car was drivable, although with only limited use of the brakes as the lock was still attached to the peddle.  We decided to head towards Bangkok, at least until we reached the first place big enough to have a garage.  We spotted a hardware store in the first town and after much hassle managed to saw the padlock open.  We continued through and north of Bangkok, intending to camp near Chang Rak, but took a wrong turning and ended up near the airport with the police looking us over.

Brown-headed Gulls at Bang Poo

mangroves at Bang Poo, perhaps my least favourite natural habitat

18 December.  I was up at dawn but that was still ten minutes after Steve.  Wandered around the marshy area where we’d camped seeing Black-browed Red Warbler and Siberian Stonechat.  We drove back into Bangkok stopping at a temple on the way in.  We went to the Tourist Office to find out how to get to Old Custom House Lane where we hoped to meet Dr Boonsong, to whom we had written of our visit.  We met some Australian birders there who told us they’d seen a Koel in Bangkok Zoo but that Dr Boonsong was away until that evening.  We went to the zoo seeing the Koel and a few other nice things.  Nothing compared to Orange-headed Ground Thrush and Banded Pitta in one of the cages, very gripping.  We tried again to find Chiang Rak but got it wrong again despite it being daylight.  We stopped at an area east of Rangsit after seeing Pied Harrier and Bronze-winged Jacana from the main road.  In a marshy area around some paddyfields a few warblers were flicking around so we put up a mist net.  It seemed to no avail but as the sun was setting Steve shouted ‘male Rubythroat’.  Amazingly the first bird we’d caught.  We took some photos in the car headlights and released it.  We headed back to take the net down when Peter walked up saying there appeared to be a cisticola in the net but it was too large and in torchlight my suspicions were confirmed - a Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler.  Back at the car we identified it as being the central Asian race as it had grey fringes to the crown feathers.  When released it ran off along the ground, an amazing finish to the day.  We returned to Bangkok to see Dr Boonsong and spent a very rewarding 90 minutes with him getting lots of useful information on where to go and what to look out for.  He also very kindly gave us an introductory letter to smooth our way.  The only down side was him telling us we had no chance of seeing any pittas as they were very secretive and were silent at this time of year.  We drove south, down the peninsular, until the early hours and camped by the road.

Great White Egret
Intermediate Egret
Indian Prinia
19 December.  The first couple of hours around the camp produced five new birds including the excellent Little Green Bee-eater but when we were ready to move on the car wouldn’t start.  Increasingly desperate attempts culminated in Steve really revving the engine and blowing off the oil filter.  We were towed to the nearest garage where, after about an hour of trying various filters and wasting a lot of oil, the best they could do for us was to put back the old filter and tighten it up.  At least the car now started.  We drove to the next down with a few stops of roadside birds (Ashy Wood Swallow being best).  Here we repeated the oil filter procedure and eventually a replacement was found.  At this stop we tried some Thai food but not liking anything spicy I couldn’t get on with it at all – really bad.  We continued driving south with a few stops, the longest north of Prachuap Khiri Khan produced an amazing day roosting Brown Hawk Owl.  We continued driving south after dark, breaking for a meal.  We eventually stopped to camp at about 02:00 about 20 kms south of Ranong.  The heat was amazing although it wasn’t until we got out of the car that we realised how hot and humid it was – the car’s air conditioning must have been working overtime.  The sounds from the jungle at night were amazing too.

20 December.  We were up before it was light enough to see anything, intrigued by the array of calls.  I saw 17 new birds in 3-4 hours including Red-wattled Lapwing and our first malkoha, leafbird and minivet.  We continued driving south stopping in suitable habitat and seeing lots of new birds including the stunning Yellow-breasted Flowerpecker (as colourful as an American warbler), Fairy Bluebird and Greater Goldenback (by my reckoning my 1000th species).  We explored some dense jungle south of Khuraburi seeing White-rumped Shama but were probably making so much noise crashing around that anything else was long gone.  Our first Great Hornbills were amazing and further south (just north of Phuket) we saw Pintail Snipe and Grey-headed Lapwing by the road.  The latter was much further south than Boonsong’s Bird Guide of Thailand suggested it normally occurred.  Here I also rather carelessly flushed three plovers, two were Pacific Goldens but we couldn’t identify the other leaving lingering doubts that it might just have been an Oriental Plover.  We ventured into a rubber plantation but it was very poor and saw a Greater Coucal from the road (the alternative name of Crow-Pheasant seemed quite apt).  After dark we drove south onto Phuket Island.  We stopped at a local Police Station where Peter got directions to Klong Nakong National Park.  One of the rangers was still about, or our approach had woken him and he’d come to investigate - it wasn't much after 20:00!  Peter showed him our letter of introduction from Dr Boonsong and when asked where we were staying told him we had tents.  Asking what that was Peter replied that ‘a tent is like a little house’ and we camped on the edge of a rubber plantation by the National Park entrance.  In hindsight I think we misunderstood the offer of accommodation – at this stage we didn’t fully appreciate how powerful Dr Boonsong’s letter was!  Unfortunately Andrew lost his camera rather putting a dampener on the day.

21 December.  I saw two new phylloscopus warblers in the rubber plantation where we'd camped, but little else and we quickly drove back into the National Park where we spent all morning.  I found it very hard work with spiderhunters shooting all over the place unidentifiably.  Highlights were wintering Eye-browed Thrushes and a brilliant view of a Black Baza at the top of the park, a stunning raptor and not a family that usually impresses me.  We drove south stopping on the coast to the east of Phuket town where on a muddy beach we saw a good selection of waders including 30 Terek Sandpipers.  We arranged a boat trip off shore from Rawai Beach for a couple of hours and saw Lesser Frigatebirds and a White-bellied Sea-Eagle for an exorbitant fee.  We left Phuket and continued south towards Krabi camping on the roadside 45km north of the town.
Lesser Frigatebirds over our boat off Rawai Beach

22 December.  We woke to find we were outside another rubber plantation. It was as birdless as the others although we managed to see Abbot’s Babbler.  Andrew sussed out a couple of new prinias while I was taking down the tent.  Further south we spent 2-3 hours on a jungle track about 20 kms north of Krabi.  This was excellent with a superb Red-bearded Bee-eater, Streaked Wren-Babbler and a white male Asian Paradise Flycatcher.  Krabi itself was pretty grim although good for scavenging Brahminy Kites.  There was a furious rainstorm while we were lunching.  We then found the sea west of Krabi by taking some rough tracks.  Here the scenery was amazing and we saw Greater, Lesser and Malaysian Sand Plovers.  We borrowed an old canoe to cross a river and after an hour’s birding returned to find it had gone.  It was not particularly surprising as we’d ignored a guy shouting at us when we were nearly over – it had appeared to be abandoned, honest.  Luckily some fishermen a few hundred metres down the beach had a motorboat and gratefully received 10 baht (25p) to run us back across.  We saw Large-tailed Nightjar at dusk in the car’s headlights and drove back north, camping by the road about 15km north of Krabi.
Spotted Dove
road west of Krabi.  Note bamboo poles, ideal for mist nets but a bit of a pain to carry.   We found one and Steve obtained the other from a young boy who was carrying it.  I hope he wasn't too traumatised by the experience.
me on a beach west of Krabi
the mouth of the river we crossed (at a much narrower point I hasten to add)
Malaysian Plover
sand plovers

23 December.  After the first half hour around our campsite we spent all day in the jungle we’d previously visited about  20 kms north of Krabi.  It was reasonably pleasant on the track in the jungle but a ride cut for pylons was like being in an oven it was so hot.  We saw lots of good birds, the best being Raffle’s Malkoha, White-whiskered Tree-Swift, Dark-throated Oriole and Tickell’s Niltava.  The lure of northern Thailand and hopefully wintering Sibes was, however, proving too much for us.  At 19.30 we left and started the long drive north, continuing all through the night.
approx 20 kms north of Krabi
24 December.  We'd reached Prachup by dawn and continued driving north pretty much continuously all day and night.  We stopped by the road at a good looking wader area south of Bangkok and some marshland to the north.  Otherwise we only stopped to change money at Bangkok Airport, drivers and for fuel.  I saw two new birds including Jerdon’s Starling while we were travelling at 70 mph.  A bad but necessary day.

Common Myna
saltpans south of Bangkok
Lesser Sandplover
Long-toed Stint
Red-necked Stint

Friday, 20 January 1978

KENYA January 1978: Masai Mara, Kakamega & Lake Turkana

9 January 1978.  All day was spent in the Masai Mara National Park, entering from the east soon after dawn and leaving at dusk from the north-west.  Time was spent at Keekorok Lodge, driving around and in the northern corner.  It was easily the best reserve for animals that we visited and we saw Cheetah, Wart Hog, Giraffe, Elephant, Spotted Hyena, Olive Baboon and assorted antelope, although not in the numbers often seen on TV.  Birds included Caspian and Wattled Plovers, Narina’s Trogon, Bare-faced Go-way-bird, Woodland Kingfisher, White-browed Robinchat and Red-collared and Yellow-mantled Widowbirds.

wintering Caspian Plover, seen soon after entering the Masai Mara
Topi and Thompson's Gazelle
Thompson's Gazelle
Grant's Gazelle
Olive Baboon
10 January 1978.  We drove to Lake Victoria in region of Kendu where we birdwatched in marshy areas on the lake’s edge and also at an inland pool several miles to the west.  We then drove around the lake to Kisumu, stopping in paddyfields on route.  Finally to Kakamega where the last few hours of daylight were spent in forest.  Best birds included Black & White Casqued Hornbill and Ludher’s Bush-Shrike.

Hadada Ibis
Hammerkops at Lake Victoria
Pied Kingfishers in Papyrus at the edge of Lake Victoria
11 January 1978.  Whole day spent in Kakamega, mainly in area of streams on road midway between Kakamega and Kapsabet road.  Best sightings were Black & White Colobus, Red-tailed and Blue Monkeys, Sabine’;s Spinetail, Grey-green Bush-shrike, Equatorial Akalat, White-tailed Ant-thrush and Red-headed Malimbe.

12 January 1978.  Again all day spent in Kakamega, mainly in area of sawmills then back to the river and finally the area nearest to Kapsabet.  Drove overnight to Kitale.  Best birds for me were White-spotted Flufftail, Emerald and Red-chested Cuckoos, White-headed Wood-Hoopoe and Abyssinian Hill Babbler.  Chris saw Orange-starred Bush-Robin which was very gripping.

Long-crested Hawk Eagle, one of the more distinctive eagles, at least in adult plumage
13 January 1978.  We drove from Kitale to Kongalai spending most of the day on the side of hill on the escarpment.  From there we drove to Kapenguria where we arrived shortly after dark.  After waiting several hours for petrol and asking about roads we set off north getting halfway to Ortum where we camped.  Best birds were Pallid Harrier, the stunning Ross’s Turaco and Hemprich’s Hornbill.

Kongali Escarpment
view into Uganda from Kongali Escarpment, with Idi Amin in charge a shortcut didn't seem like a good idea and we turned back
Curly-crested Helmet-Shrike
14 January 1978.  We slowly travelled north towards Ferguson’s Gulf stopping in suitable habitat en route.  We arrived with an hour of daylight left which we spent on the shore of Lake Turkana.  At dusk we drove 10 miles back into the desert to camp.  Lots of excellent birds seen today including Swallow-tailed Kite (10), Bataleur, Secretary Bird, Cream-coloured Courser, Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, Namaqua Dove (including 40 sheltering from the sun under a small bush), Star-spotted Nightjar, Abyssinian Roller, Darnaud’s and Red & Yellow Barbets and Cut-throat.

Dark Chanting Goshawk
Bataleur, a very impressive and powerful looking eagle
15 January 1978.  Early to mid morning was spent in desert where we camped, the first part warming up after a clear cold night.  We returned to Ferguson’s Gulf and birdwatched for an hour on the shore of Lake Turkana, failing to find anywhere else to access the lake.  We went to Elye Springs in the afternoon where the car got stuck in the sand for an hour.  Back to Lodwar as dusk was falling.  Two flat tyres so we camped outside Lodwar.  Best birds seen were thousands of both flamingos, Swallow-tailed Kite, Cream-coloured Courser, White-winged Black Tern (500+), Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, Alpine Swift (1000+) and Abyssinian Roller.

sunrise in the desert
White-headed Vulture
eyeing me up, it had been cold at night but we weren't ready to succumb just yet ...

Ring-necked Dove
Abyssinian Roller
16 January 1978.  We drove slowly from Lodwar south to Kapenguria stopping infrequently.  The last hour of daylight was spent in woodland just west of Kapenguria.  After dark we drove to Kitale.  Best birds included four species of vulture, Grey Kestrel, Cream-coloured Courser, Ross’s Turaco, Abyssinian Roller, Double-toothed Barbet (one I’d missed earlier in the trip), Snoy-headed Robinchat and House Bunting.

White-backed Vulture
Egyptian Vulture
Lappet-faced Vulture, altogether more sinister looking
17 January 1978.  We started the day birding in Kitale Forest Nursery.  Next we stopped at a roadside dam north of Eldoret and then spent time in the Northern Tinteret Forest.  From there we drove south to Nakurua and Gilgil, the last part in darkness, and then overnight to Naivasha.  At one stage of the journey the road seemed to disappear in a section of roadworks.  Mark asked one of the workers where the road was and was told ‘not to worry it will be along in a minute’.  A few bulldozes later it was!  Best birds were Spotted Eagle Owl, Ross’s and Hartlaub;s Turacos, Black-throated Wattle-eye and a white male Paradise Flycatcher.

18 January 1978.  The first part of the day was spent in the Crescent Island area of Lake Naivasha.  From there we drove on to Hell’s Gate and finally round to the northern part of the lake where access was obtained by walking across fields.  We drove overnight towards Magadi stopping about 60 miles short.  Best sightings were Lammergeyer, Verreaux’s Eagle, African Rail, Malachite and Pied Kingfishers and a White-tailed Mongoose.

Lammergeyer (bottom rightish) at Hell's Gate
19 January 1978.  We drove down to Lake Magadi with few stops.  Once there we spent time on lakeside and in surrounding scrub.  Returned to Nairobi where last hour spent in grounds of Hillcrest Secondary School.  Spent night on Ray Moore’s floor in the Karen area of Nairobi.  Best birds were Kori Bustard, Chestnut-banded Plover, Giant Kingfisher (another catch up for me), White-throated Bee-eater, five species of wheatear and Red-throated Tit.

campsite on the Magadi Road
me on the Magadi Road, it is tempting to suggest that the Chestnut-banded Plovers were at the foot of the rainbow.  Having been mistaken for Jesus (and thanked profusely for appearing as a vision), albeit by a drunk, while sitting in a car outside a cafe a couple of days earlier anything was possible ... 
20 January 1978.  Early morning in the garden in Karen where I was asking Ray Moore how frequently he saw Giant Kingfishers, something I'd missed and was very keen to see.  Almost before he could say not very often Chris picked up one as it flew past.   We then drove into Nairobi National Park negotiating muddy roads to reach the Hippo Pools for the rest of the morning.  We then drove to the airport, returned the car somewhat the worse for wear and had time for a quick look around the airport area (not seeing much) and museum before flying home.  Best birds were Ostrich, Long-crested Hawk-Eagle, Shelley’s Francolin, Peter’s Finfoot and Giant, Malachite and Pigmy Kingfishers.

A superbly eye-opening trip with me seeing just over 600 species in 4 weeks, of which about 500 were new.  Not a patch on what can be seen now but a reasonable total with little information, very poor literature, a somewhat erratic itinerary and no recordings.  Needless to say I'd seriously got the bug for long haul birding and have pretty much never looked back.  Many thanks to Chris, Mark and particularly Pete for inviting me along.

[blogged December 2012]