Friday, 16 February 2018

Thailand...again - 2

The second full day of our trip to Thailand started just as the previous day had finished – with rain.  From Viang Yanok Resort we visited the nearby private Nam Kham Nature Reserve, which protects one of the last remaining areas of riverine habitat in the area. Star birds here included a male Jerdon’s Bushchat, a species which, we were told, is becoming increasingly difficult to see due to habitat loss. The first male Siberian Rubythroat of the trip was also seen and there was a bonus in the form of a Brown-cheeked Rail, a fairly recent split from Water Rail.  It was also good to see Citrine Wagtail, a species that neither of us has seen very often.

Jerdon’s Bushchat

Later we headed along the banks of the Mekong River, where water levels were very high, stopping briefly at the Golden Triangle, the point where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos come together.  Known locally as Sop Ruak, this is where the Mekong meets the Ruak River and was once the centre of one of Asia's main opium-producing areas.  We then headed to Fang, our base for the next three nights.

 June at the Golden Triangle

 Buddha statue at the Golden Triangle

Enjoying a drink beside the Mekong River

The border town of Mai Sai showing the country's favourite form of transport

After checking into Wiang Kaew Resort, mid-afternoon we headed out to some nearby rice paddies, where despite light rain and plenty of mud, we eventually found both of our target species, Horsfield’s Bushlark and Chestnut-eared Bunting.  It was interesting to see and differentiate between Common and Pin-tailed Snipes but unfortunate that only one of us saw a Barred Buttonquail that was flushed but quickly disappeared into the rice stubble.

The following day was also cloudy and damp as we headed up the western slope of Doi Lang but it did eventually manage to brighten up a bit later.  There was a brief view of a Mrs Hume’s Pheasant on the way and a decent selection of species once we were out of our vehicle and walking the road, among them Giant Nuthatch, Wedge-tailed Pigeon and Crested Finchbill.  Doi Lang is a favourite venue for Thai bird photographers and there are a number of ‘stakeouts’ where they routinely deploy mealworms to entice species such as Siberian Rubythroat, White-bellied Redstart, Rufous-bellied Niltava, Rufous-gorgeted & Ultramarine Flycatchers and Silver-eared Laughingthrush.  At one point there was a line of pop-up hides projecting half across the road!  At the army checkpoint near the top of the mountain, only a stone’s throw from the border with Myanmar, we watched numerous Dark-backed Sibias and several stunning male Mrs Gould’s Sunbirds in a flowering tree.

 Roadside birding on Doi Lang

 Roadside lunch on Doi Lang

 Siberian Rubythroat

 Silver-eared Laughingthrush

 Rufous-bellied Niltava

 Ultramarine Flycatcher

 Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher

Mrs Gould's Sunbird

There was a second trip up Doi Lang the next morning and at last there was some real sunshine!  This time there were much longer views on the way of Mrs Hume’s Pheasant, a male and two females.  We drove as far as the army checkpoint and then walked along the road.  A Collared Owlet was very vocal and quite close but unfortunately remained unseen but a Spot-breasted Parrotbill, regarded by Neil as one of the star birds of the whole trip, was much more obliging.

Spot-breasted Parrotbill

After a brief break at the resort, mid-afternoon we headed to the rice paddies at That Ton.  A short walk here produced a few Chestnut-eared Buntings and a quail that was flushed twice but remained unidentified – it was probably Japanese Quail but could possibly have been a Rain Quail.  We were delighted to see a group of Small Pratincoles flying over the nearby Khok River, a new charadriiform for both of us!  They landed some way off but we had decent scope views. 

Hot springs at Doi Pha Hom Pok National Park

Before breakfast the following morning we headed to nearby Doi Pha Hom Pok National Park, where once the thick fog had cleared, we quickly found our main target, a small flock of Spot-winged Grosbeaks, which apparently feed on minerals deposited on trees by the hot springs.  After breakfast we headed to Chiang Dao, where Malee Nature Lovers Bungalow our base for the next four nights, held the promise of soft, comfortable beds that would be a welcome relief after the hard beds of the previous three nights!

More to follow…

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Thailand...again - 1

Our first visit to Thailand in January last year (see blogs here, here and here) was memorable in many ways, not least for the fact that we saw Spoon-billed Sandpiper for the first time.  However, the dreadful weather experienced during the first few days of the trip has also stayed long in the mind.  With January supposedly being in the ‘dry season’ we had been told not to expect rain but in the event a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal resulted in a continuous downpour (and consequent mud) that detracted greatly from our wader experience at Laem Pak Bia and Pak Thale.  We weren’t prepared for it and we were ill-equipped.

In spite of that it was a great trip and it wasn’t long after returning home that we decided we must go again to Thailand.  And so it was that a plan came together for another visit in January this year.  Again we went with friends, Chris & Graham Weston and our guide in Thailand was Neil Lawton.

When deciding the itinerary, a return to Pak Thale was essential in order to enjoy all those waders in better weather conditions but otherwise we set out to see different parts of the country from those we had been to in 2017. We also decided that two weeks wouldn’t be long enough this time and we arranged for 19 nights actually in Thailand.  We planned to start in the north of the country and then to work our way south by road, finishing with a couple of days around the Gulf of Thailand and another visit to the saltpans of Pak Thale...

We flew from Birmingham to Dubai and then from Dubai to Bangkok, both flights on the very comfortable Airbus A380, the world's largest passenger airliner. We had time for a snack in Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok and got off to a great start there when we looked out of a window to see a Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler on the grass below!  From Bangkok we took an internal flight to Chiang Rai where we were met by Neil, his wife, Pennapa and driver, Choom.

We spent our first two nights at the Viang Yanok Resort, only about an hour’s drive from Chiang Rai and located on the shores of Chiang Saen Lake.  We arrived late and very tired but we were up 5.30 a.m. the following morning for some local birding, the highlight of which was a boat trip on the lake.  This produced quite a number of familiar species such as Little Grebe, Grey & Purple Herons, Great Egret, Garganey and Ferruginous Duck but also Grey-headed Swamphen, Lesser Whistling Ducks, Indian Spot-billed Ducks, Chinese Pond Heron and Asian Openbill.

 Viang Yanok Resort

 Chiang Saen Lake

On the boat

 Grey-headed Swamphen

 Purple Heron

 Indian Spot-billed Ducks

Lesser Whistling Ducks

After lunch we headed to the nearby harrier roost at Wiam Nom Long, just in time for heavy rain to begin…talk about déjà vu!  Surely we weren’t in for a repeat of last year’s unseasonal weather.  We managed to find some shelter from the rain and soon found a male Western Marsh Harrier, a scarce winter visitor to Thailand, quartering the marsh. As the afternoon passed and the rain continued to fall, lots of harriers began to arrive at the roost including many fine male Pied Harriers.

We arrived back at the resort in a familiar damp and soggy state.  Several different weather forecasts were consulted.  We tried to remain optimistic but it seemed fairly clear that we were once again going to experience a rather wet ‘dry season’!

More to follow…

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Peru Fam Trip - 2

Our time at Hacienda Concepción had been all too short but after breakfast we packed our bags and took the boat back to Puerto Maldonado to catch a flight to Cusco.  Puerto Maldonado lies at about 600 feet above sea level; Cusco is at 11,200 feet – we were now well and truly in the Andes.  We arrived in Cusco in mid-afternoon; our next destination, now travelling in a minibus, was the luxurious Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba.  However, there were stops on the way at a couple of lakes to see a completely different range of bird species: Andean Gulls, Chilean Flamingos, Yellow-billed & White-cheeked Pintails, Puna Ibis, White-tufted & Silvery Grebes, Black-necked Stilts, Andean Coots and Andean Ducks.  A surprise among all these ‘strange’ birds was to see two Sanderlings pecking about at the water’s edge.


 Andean Gulls

Chilean Flamingos

Located in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, Hacienda Urubamba is described as "a contemporary hacienda-style hotel...immersed in the countryside in a gorgeous area...surrounded by imposing green mountains...(with) breathtaking views of the valley."  And that's before you go inside!  Suffice to say that normally it would be way beyond my budget.

Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba

There was clearly the possibility of some good birding around the hotel but with departure at 6.30 a.m. there was little time to explore.  We were now heading to an even higher elevation and fittingly, a Mountain Caracara was one of the few birds we saw as we climbed a winding mountain road to about 14,000 feet.  Leaving the vehicle by the roadside, we climbed up the nearby hillside to reach the Royal Cinclodes Trail at about 14,500 feet and by now a shortage of breath was an issue for some of us!  Royal Cinclodes is a Critically Endangered species with a very small population and there was no chance of us finding one without going much further than we did.  Just being at that altitude was a great experience and we did see White-winged Cinclodes, which although quite a common species really does look quite similar to Royal!  Also up here were Andean Lapwing, Plumbeous Sierra-Finch and what we eventually identified as Cordilleran Canastero. 

Mountain Caracara

White-winged Cinclodes

We couldn’t stay at high elevation for too long as we had a train to catch and after just one further brief stop we descended to the town of Ollantaytambo for the 12.55 p.m. service to Machu Picchu.  My recent experience of trains has been confined to the Cross Country Trains service between Stafford and Birmingham Airport and to the service between Tavira and Faro in the Algarve.  It’s fair to say that my expectations weren’t high!  However, I was pleasantly surprised by virtually all aspects of this journey, the comfort, the refreshments, the helpful staff, the view and not least by the regular pairs of Torrent Ducks that could be seen as the train passed alongside the Rio Urubamba. A Fasciated Tiger-Heron and one or two White-capped Dippers were also seen.


Rio Urubamba from the train

Torrent Ducks

On arrival it was just a short walk from the station to the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel and the rest of the day was spent birding in the grounds there.  For the first time on this trip there were hummingbird feeders and also feeders with fruit for tanagers, euphonias and, as it turned out, for Dusky-green Oropendolas.  The species list was impressive with Andean Cock-of-the-rock probably the star bird.  It was also good to see hummingbirds such as Gould’s Inca, Chestnut-breasted Coronet and the endemic Green-and-white Hummingbird.

 Blue-grey Tanager

Thick-billed Euphonia

 Gould's Inca

Chestnut-breasted Coronet

At last came the day for us to visit Peru’s main attraction.  It required just a short walk from the hotel to catch a bus that took us up the mountainside to the entrance of Machu Picchu.  To say that Machu Picchu is impressive would be an understatement.  The setting is spectacular and not for nothing is it a UNESCO World Heritage Site and listed among the New Seven Wonders of the World.  You can read about it here.  Suffice to say that it was built by the Incas in the 15th Century but not known at all to the Spanish colonists and somehow remained unknown to the outside world until American historian Hiram Bingham brought it to international attention in 1911.  Not surprisingly, we weren't the only visitors!  In fact Machu Picchu attracts more than a million tourists annually.  Although I had binoculars and two cameras I somehow felt under-equipped without a selfie stick.

 Machu Picchu

Apart from ruins, there are many birds to be seen at Machu Picchu, perhaps most notably the Inca Wren, a species first described as recently as 1985.  Quite what the Incas (not to mention the Spanish) were doing that they overlooked this bird one can only imagine!

Inca Wren

We spent the afternoon birding back at the hotel, also walking along the railway line and the river.  It was really good with quite a number of species that we hadn’t seen previously and we gave up only when the light became too poor to see.  The afternoon bird list included Violet-throated Starfrontlet, Streaked Xenops, Brown-capped & Red-eyed Vireos, Plumbeous-crowned Tyrannulet, Capped Conebill and several species of tanagers.

Birding along the railway line

The following day was spent travelling to Lima.  We caught the 5.35 a.m. train to Ollantaytambo, a minibus from there to Cusco and then a LATAM flight to the capital, where we arrived at 6.30 p.m.  There was just one worthwhile birding stop.  It was at a lake where Plumbeous Rail, Puna Teal, Wren-like Rushbird, Yellow-winged Blackbird and Band-tailed Sierra-Finch were the most notable species.

Our last morning of the trip was spent at the offices of PROMPERU where a workshop was held during which we had the opportunity to meet and talk to various local ground operators and hoteliers/lodge owners.  It was a well-organised and worthwhile event.  It was also an opportunity to meet and thank the people from PROMPERU who had organised our trip.

So that was it, except that some of us had flights home that weren’t leaving until late evening.  There was only one thing to do – we went birding!  Local guide Gunnar Engblom had been involved in the workshop and was already known to a couple of us so it didn’t take much to arrange an afternoon tour of coastal sites around Lima.  With the accent on gulls, terns and waders, this was really easy birding compared with the rainforest and thoroughly enjoyable.  Standout species were Inca Tern, Peruvian Thick-knee, Belcher’s, Kelp & Grey-hooded Gulls (not forgetting hundreds of Franklin’s), Red-legged Cormorant, Peruvian Pelican and Peruvian Booby.

 Franklin's Gull

 Belcher's Gull

 Red-legged Cormorant

 Elegant Tern

Peruvian Thick-knee

All in all it was a great trip and confirmed what we already knew, that Peru really is a great birding destination.  The country’s bird list runs to about 1,800 species with more than 100 endemics.  It has a wealth of other wildlife, stunning scenery, huge areas of unspoilt wilderness, including vast tracts of forest and lots of historical interest.  Without exception in my experience, the people were friendly and welcoming, the accommodation is good and I enjoyed the food.  There was nothing not to like!  My return is already scheduled with an Avian Adventures tour to Peru already planned for September 2018.


Thursday, 16 November 2017

Peru Fam Trip - 1

Peter writes:
My recent visit to Peru came about as a result of an invitation from PROMPERU, the country’s tourism authority, for Avian Adventures to send a representative on a short familiarisation trip.  The object was for me to gain some further experience of Peru with particular reference to the birdwatching but also the accommodation, transport, guiding and infrastructure relevant to us offering a tour there.

I was part of a group of eight (three of us from the UK, two each from Italy and the USA and one from Canada) and we were accompanied throughout by at least four local Peruvians.  Without exception, they were a great bunch and a pleasure to travel with.

Apart from hotels in Lima at the start and end of the trip, accommodation was in hotels and lodges operated by Inkaterra, a company at the forefront of ecotourism and sustainable development in Peru.  More than 800 bird species and 100 mammal species have been recorded in the grounds and surroundings of Inkaterra’s seven properties and we got to stay at four of them.

After a night in Lima on arrival we were back at the airport next morning for a flight to Puerto Maldonado, known as ‘the gateway to the southern Amazon jungle’.  When we arrived there just after midday the temperature was a steamy 32ºC. 

From the airport it was just a short way to the Rio Madre de Dios, a river that flows into neighbouring Bolivia and is part of the vast Amazon River watershed.  Here we boarded a boat that took us to the Inkaterra Guides Field Station.  Birds seen from the boat included many Plumbeous Kites, Cocoi Heron, Wood Stork, Snowy Egret, Pied Lapwing, Black Skimmer, Red-throated Caracara and four species of vultures – a very satisfactory start.  In the afternoon we were birding in nearby forest as we walked to a canopy tower and a slightly scary walkway between the trees, 100 feet above the forest floor.  Amongst the birds seen were Russet-backed Oropendola, Buff-throated Woodcreeper, Black-fronted Nunbird, Curl-crested Aracari and several tanager species; mammals included a Night Monkey and a Mouse Opossum.

On the Rio Madre de Dios

Snowy Egret

Wood Stork

Inkaterra Guides Field Station

Mouse Opossum

Next day we took to the river again but only after dragging ourselves away from the amazing number and variety of birds seen around the lodge.  We were at the edge of the Tambapota National Reserve, a vast area of Amazonian rainforest with tanagers, motmots, barbets, parrots, macaws and parakeets, woodcreepers, flycatchers and lots more, all vying for attention and often presenting an identification challenge – in other words great birding!

The boat took us downstream to an oxbow lake, Lago Valencia.  Again it was birds all the way with Amazon Kingfisher, Grey-lined Hawk, Black Caracara, Jabiru, Collared Plovers, Hoatzins and a Ladder-tailed Nightjar among the many highlights.  We walked a forest trail and got up close to enormous Brazil nut trees.  As well as birds there were butterflies to enjoy (and identify later!) and an occasional lizard or monkey.

Grey-lined Hawk

Ladder-tailed Nightjar

Glittering Sapphire

Iphiclus Sister

Giant Ameiva

Blue Morpho

Black Caracara

The following day saw us board the boat again and head off along the river.  However, we didn’t go very far before taking off on foot along a muddy trail that led us to another oxbow lake, Lago Sandoval.  The walk produced Collared Trogon, Plumbeous Antbird, Plain-winged Antwren, Dull-capped Attila and much more.  At the lake we climbed aboard two smaller boats and went looking for Giant Otters.  Around the edge of the lake were Hoatzins, Rufescent Tiger-Herons, Limpkins, Grey-necked Wood-Rail, Striated Herons, Anhingas, Neotropic Cormorants and Sunbitterns.  Long-nosed Bats were found roosting on a tree trunk.  There was a thunderstorm while we were out on the lake and when we returned to the muddy trail it was even muddier!

The trail to Lago Sandoval

 Giant River Otter

 Birding on Lago Sandoval



 Long-nosed Bats


Grey-necked Wood-Rail

After two nights at the Field Station, we now went to spend a night at the Inkaterra Hacienda Concepción.  We arrived late afternoon when the light was starting to fade but still managed to find a few birds around the grounds as well as Bolivian Squirrel Monkeys and a Brown Agouti.  There was much better birding during the pre-breakfast session the next morning, starting at 5.00 a.m.  Species seen included Yellow-tufted & Red-stained Woodpeckers, White-throated Jacamars, White-browed & Chestnut-tailed Antbirds, Amazonian Motmot, Great Antshrike and Speckled Chachalaca but none of these gained our attention more than a Rainbow Boa, a strikingly-patterned snake that allowed close approach and, in fact, might easily have been stepped on.

 Hacienda Concepción

Rainbow Boa

More of my Peru Fam Trip to follow...