Skip to navigation, or go to main content.

WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Thailand: The Northwest

2023 Narrative

Our tour began with a meeting and dinner at the Novotel in Bangkok. We departed early the next morning for the nearby airport for our flight to Chiang Mai. After boarding some of us noted a handful of Asian Openbills on the grass margin of the airstrip. In Chiang Mai we met our team, head man and organizer, Pasith, drivers Pradit and Manoon, and Mr. C and Muang in the “chuckwagon”, and then headed south. After lunch, we continued on to Mae Ping National Park where we saw a variety of interesting species in the deciduous forest, notably Eurasian Hoopoe, the beautiful Black-headed Woodpecker, Grey-headed Parakeet (some 15), Black-hooded Oriole, Common Hill Myna, Verditer Flycatcher, White-rumped Shama and Golden-fronted Leafbird. Two Red Junglefowl were spotted from our vans. Our views of Black-headed Woodpecker were of a pair feeding on the ground and near dusk a Collared Falconet flew over. As dusk descended we heard and saw a Southern Boobok.  Our most significant sighting of the day was two Yellow-footed Pigeons. This is only the second time we have seen this striking species in some forty years of our Thai tours.

We returned the next morning to Mae Ping National Park where we encountered many of the species we had seen the afternoon before. New species included Crested Serpent Eagle, Grey-faced Buzzard, Common Flameback , Grey-capped Woodpecker, Black-naped Monarch, Eurasian Jay (distinctive “White-faced” subspecies, leucotis), White-crested Laughingthrush, Hainan and Little Pied flycatchers and Burmese and Velvet-fronted Nuthatches. The Little Pied Flycatcher, a male, must have been a winter visitor as they usually occur at much higher elevations.  A few saw and we all heard a White-bellied Woodpecker. A calling White-rumped Pygmy-Falcon flew past us, but we were unable to locate its perch for scope views.  Heading north we stopped at Pan Hong non-hunting area where we enjoyed numerous Green Peafowl, some displaying and spreading their tails. Here, Plain Flowerpecker was well studied too. Later at a bridge over the Mae Ping River we noted eight Little Pratincoles and Little Ringed Plovers (subspecies jerdoni), including fledged young, plus a Citrine Wagtail. We concluded the day with checking a location near our lodging at the base of Doi Inthanon where we had brief views of a perched flock of Blossom-headed Parakeets.   

The next morning we arose well before dawn for our ascent to the summit of Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest peak, at 1850 meters (8145’). We started just above the temple with hundreds of others awaiting the sunrise to the east. Just above we had good views of a flock of Speckled Wood Pigeons atop perches. This is a regular site for this uncommon species.  Around the restrooms on the summit, we had excellent views of several Grey-sided Thrushes feeding in a fruiting tree. Dark-backed Sibias, Bar-throated Minlas, and Silver-eared Laughingthrushes were all around, sometimes just a few feet away. Several Blue Whistling-thrushes (subspecies temminckii) were along the margins of the tarmac road. Much of the day we spent just below, around the circular boardwalk around the beautiful bog with the red-flowering rhododendron. Our attention was drawn to the numerous beautiful sunbirds, both Gould’s and Green-tailed (subspecies angkanensis), the latter treated as a full species (Doi Inthanon Sunbird) by some.  It is endemic to the higher elevations (above 2000 meters) to Doi Inthanon.  Warblers were numerous and included resident Ashy-throated and Blyth’s Leaf along with a wintering Buff-barred Warbler. Yellow-bellied Fairy Fantails were most cooperative.  Most of the group got to see a Yellow-browed Tit, a scarce species in Thailand. More secretive species included a male Himalayan Shortwing, Snowy-browed Flycatcher, multiple Slaty-bellied Tesias, and single Eyebrowed and Dark-sided Thrushes. We heard but did not see, a White-crowned Forktail and a Pygmy Cupwing (calling “three, blind, mice”). Pradit eventually located the Rufous-throated Partridges and we all managed to get good views of them. Late in the morning, he returned to our group in great excitement as he had found what he thought was a Eurasian Woodcock around a tiny pool just to the side of the start of the boardwalk. This species is fairly regular here in winter and we sometimes see it. When we arrived and saw the bird probing in the mud in front of us amongst the roots and shadows, I realized that it was not only a snipe, but a species I had never seen before. We carefully studied the bird as it circled and rooted in the tiny pool in front of us and numerous photos were obtained. We rather quickly settled that it was a Wood Snipe, a poorly known Himalayan endemic that is a short-distance migrant. There were fewer than 10 previous records for Thailand, and this bird was the first one that would eventually be widely seen. It was actually missed that afternoon and for a period of days afterward, but then reappeared and was well-seen for a few weeks before disappearing. Then it was seen again in May! Phil Round, the man that started our Thai tours in 1984, the author of over 100 scientific publications, and one of the Thai field guides, was able to see it. Phil often talked about the possibility of seeing this species and envisioning the summit Doi Inthanon bog as the location. It was arguably the best bird of the trip.

Eventually, we drove down the mountain to the second checkpoint, closer to 1500 meters. Here walking alongside the road we encountered a number of new species, sometimes in a feeding flock. These included Bronzed Drongo, both Small and Large Niltavas (males), Yellow-cheeked Tit, Mountain Bulbul, White-tailed Leaf warbler and Chestnut-crowned Warbler, Mountain Tailorbird (a warbler), Yunan Fulvetta, and Golden Babbler.  As the light diminished late in the day, we descended back to our lodging. It was a special day, perhaps the best birding day of the trip.

The next morning we birded along a road above the village and the park headquarters which eventually took us to an arboretum. Highlights were numerous and included Oriental Turtle-dove, Eurasian Hoopoe, Blue-throated Barbet, Black-winged Cuckoo-shrike, Yellow-cheeked and Cinereous (“Japanese”) Tits, Asian House-martin (some 20), Black Bulbul, Blyth’s Shrike-babbler, Short-billed and Long-tailed Minivets, Slender-billed Oriole, Silver-eared Mesia, Greenish Warbler, Slaty-backed Forktail, White-capped Water-redstart, Plumbeous Water-redstart, Chestnut-vented Nuthatch, Eyebrowed Thrush, Hill Blue Flycatcher,  Small,  Rufous-bellied and Vivid Niltavas, and Olive-backed Pipit. Kimball Garrett gave us a tutorial on identifying Swinhoe’s from Indian White-eye, for which the calls were an important element.  A Bay Woodpecker was heard well, and while it approached us closely, it evaded detection. This is often the case with this evasive species. I heard a distant Indian Cuckoo and while the rest of the group missed it, I was pleased that this species still occurs here.

On our final day on Doi Inthanon we birded the middle elevations and noted a few new species. Highlights included Golden-throated Barbet, Lesser Racquet-tailed Drongo, Hume’s (Manipur) Treecreeper, Maroon Oriole, White-throated Fantail, Yellow-cheeked Tit, Grey-throated Babbler, Rufous-backed Sibia, Spectacled Barwing, Black-throated Sunbird and Streaked Spiderhunter. A Clcking Shrike-babbler was heard.

Later in the day in Chiang Mai we birded the grounds of Ching Mai University at Mae Hia and added a number of new species. We had hoped to find Yellow-breasted Bunting for which a good number had been reported. Instead, we found some 35 Baya Weavers and wondered if a mistake had been made. But in this area, we found several Asian Stonechats (a recent split from European and African subspecies), a Thick-billed Warbler, and a male Red Avadavat. Scaly-breasted Munias were numerous. Several parakeets were seen too, and while I thought they were likely Alexandrine, Kimball raised the issue of the similarly plumaged Rose-ringed. Indeed photos prove this. This introduced species is now established here as well as elsewhere in Thailand. On the southern tour, we had several real Alexandrine Parakeets at a nesting site near Bangkok, and this further confirmed the analysis. Other species of interest noted here included a Yellow Bittern, an adult Shikra, a Rufous-winged Buzzard, and multiple Striated Swallows.

The next day we started north, stopping first at some wires along the road where we often see Crested Treeswifts. We were not disappointed and had excellent views of perched and flying birds.  Attention was drawn across the road to a small wetland that teemed with waterfowl. Amongst the 2500 Lesser Whistling-Ducks was a male Cotton Pygmy-goose, the first time we have seen this species on the northwest trip.  We then continued on to Mae Tang where we had multiple Green Sandpipers, Wire-tailed Swallows, and Little Ringed Plovers with young. Grey-headed Lapwings were noted not far away.  We stopped at an army checkpoint lake where we recorded a female Knob-billed Duck, another first for the tour and only my second individual for Thailand. A circling Crested Goshawk was also noted along with a single Pheasant-tailed Jacana.  At Fang Hot Stream we saw a perched Thick-billed Green-pigeon.  A Little and juvenile Black-crowned Night-heron were also seen during the day.  We arrived at our lodging in Fang where we would stay the next four nights.

The next morning we drove up the steep tarmac road to Doi Ang Khang, birding first at the army camp. Highlights included Grey Treepie, Blue-winged Minlas, both Striated and Brown-breasted Bulbul s, and many Crested Finchbills, Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-babbler, Spectacled Barwings and both Chestnut-vented and the striking Giant Nuthatch. Other species noted during the day included Oriental Turtle-Dove, multiple Spot-winged Grosbeaks, Banded Bay-cuckoo (finally seen!), an adult male Common Rosefinch, Scaly and Black-throated Thrushes (8), Small Niltava, Grey Bushchats, Grey-capped Woodpecker (2), Black-throated Sunbird,) and two Burmese Shrikes, appropriately at the Burma border. Some 30 Cook’s Swifts were also noted.

Early the next morning we headed up the south side of Doi Lang. We started at a site hoping to see Hume’s Pheasants, but none appeared, although here we had excellent views of a lovely male Ultramarine Flycatcher.   We carried on to the north side of the ridge and encountered many birds in feeding flocks. A number of new species were seen, notably flycatchers: Slaty-backed, slaty-blue, Rufous-gorgeted, and Sapphire. Stripe-breasted Woodpecker was noted along with multiple Oriental Turtle-Doves. Then Pasith spotted Himalayan Cutia, a striking species which we have often thought about seeing in Thailand, but had only heard it. It was Pasith’s most wanted bird and he spotted it. There were actually three birds present and we watched them for an extended period as they crawled along the leafy horizontal limbs acting a bit like a large and plump nuthatch. Other birds of interest included Mountain Imperial-pigeon, Grey-chinned Minivet, White-throated Fantail, Black-throated Tit (a pair), Grey-backed Shrike, Crested Finchbill, Puff-throated Babbler, White-browed Scimitar-babbler (heard), Marten’s Warbler, multiple Olive-backed Pipits, and a male White-bellied Redstart.  A Great Barbet was briefly seen by some. In addition we managed to see the first country record of the White-spectacled Warbler, returning here for its 2nd winter. Some 200 Cook’s Swifts were flying down the ridge, some quite low. While we had been birding, the drivers at the rear spotted a male Hume’s Pheasant along the side of the road! It had moved off a bit by the time we got back to them, but as I recall, Pradit spotted it again and all of us were able to get adequate views of this striking montane species amongst the dense undergrowth

Our work on Doi Lang wasn’t yet done. The northeast side of the mountain had been closed by the military, so we returned the next morning back to where we had been kindly advised that Mountain Bamboo-partridges crossed the road at dawn. Sure enough, the partridges performed and we watched them cross and feed along the opposite edge of the road. We counted nine. We continued on to the Checkpoint and managed to finally see the spectacular Scarlet-faced Liocichla. Returning to the ridge we noted Hill Prinia, Spectacled Barwings, a pair of Scarlet Minivets, White-throated Fantail, Lesser Racquet-tailed Drongo, and Hume’s Treecreeper (2), along with some of the flycatchers found previously including Slaty-blue and Sapphire, the latter, a species we usually miss. We also re-found and got better views of the White-spectacled Warbler. A Large Cuckoo-shrike few over our group while giving its raucous calls. Later in the afternoon, we visited areas along the south side of the Kok River near the water tower. New species included Temminck’s Stint, Eurasian Kestrel, Yellow-bellied Prinia, Yellow-eyed Babbler, Richard’s Pipit, Bluethroat and Siberian Rubythroat. We had excellent views of multiple Small Pratincoles and a single Citrine Wagtail. Amongst the numerous leucopsis White Wagtails we found a single oculars which breeds in northeast Asia and barely in western Alaska.

We left Fang the next morning and drove east towards the Golden Triangle and the Non Bong Kai non-hunting area. As we approached the area a Pied Kingfisher was briefly seen by a few. Here we took a boat on a large lake. In the aquatic vegetation on the lake were numerous Grey-headed Swamphens. Waterfowl were carefully scrutinized, particularly the flock of Ferruginous Ducks where the endangered Baer’s Pochard had been spotted.  Although we had a dozen Ferruginous Ducks we were unable to find the Baer’s Pochard. About 1000 Lesser Whistling-Ducks and 20 Indian Spot-billed Ducks were noted along with four uncommon (for Thailand) “Eurasian” Green-winged Teal.  Some 150 Eurasian Coots and 20 Pheasant-tailed Jacanas were noted along with 30 Little Grebes, one of which appeared to be leucistic, being mostly white. Purple Heron, Plaintive Cuckoo, Glossy Ibis (3), Oriental Darter (5), Great (subspecies sinensis) and Little Cormorants were all noted. Overhead, a flock of sixty Asian Openbills circled for a good while. Back at the dock site, we noted a pair of Purple Sunbirds attending a nest and a Burmese Shrike.  Later in the day, after lunch at our hotel at the Golden Triangle (where Thailand, Laos, and Burma meet), we visited the famed harrier roost site. We stopped first at a pineapple field where a male Chinese Rubythroat, a rare winter visitor to northern Thailand, was staked out. Another leader kindly shared his blinds with us, and all of us had excellent views of this stunning species. At the harrier roost site, we noted some six Eastern Marsh Harriers and at least 50 Pied Harriers, including many stunning adult males. While we were waiting for most of the harriers to arrive, we were able to get on to a singing Striated Grassbird.  It is possible a juvenile Western Marsh or Hen Harrier slipped through unnoticed. Most of the harriers appeared in near-darkness. 

Our main birding area today was Nong Luang Lake where many waterfowl were present. We initially returned to Nong Bong Kai to look for the reported Baer’s Pochard but we did not see it. Ten Grey-headed Lapwings were present. There were many ducks present at Nong Luang Lake and these included a Northern Shoveler, a Garganey, 60 Indian Spot-billed Ducks and twenty-one Ruddy Shelducks. Several geese were present too. Two were “Eastern” Greylag Geese (rubirostris), the other an immature Greater White-fronted Goose, a species recorded on only a few previous occasions in Thailand. It was known to be wintering here.  Shorebirds present included two Common Greenshanks and 1750 Black-winged Stilts. We also saw a Eurasian Wryneck here along with a briefly seen Siberian Rubythroat and multiple Dusky Warblers. An adult Brown-headed Gull was unusual, our first for this tour. At the Nom Kham Reserve we saw additional Siberian Rubythroats along with two Baikal Grasshopper-warblers.

The next morning after breakfast and checking out of the hotel we went down the Mekong River a few miles to Medong Bar. Here, we saw lots of Barn Swallows, and while we were hoping to see Asian Plain Martin, we were unsuccessful. We did get decent views of both Common and a presumed Pin-tailed (not Swinhoe’s on probability) Snipes. Of particular interest was a cooperative Long-tailed Shrike of the nominate schach subspecies (“Chinese Long-tailed Shrike”). I believe that Fernanda, Kimball, and others took photos. It is considered a rare winter visitor and recorded only in northernmost Thailand.  We stopped again for a short time at the Nan Kham Reserve where we saw Baikal Grasshopper-warbler and Siberian Rubythroat again and then headed down to Doi Tung, another high mountain on the Burma (Myanmar ) border. On the way up, two of us had brief views of a Large Hawk-cuckoo. The arboretum itself did not have many birds, We all heard Grey-eyed Bulbul, but it proved elusive. Two White-rumped Munias were our only new bird. Later, after lunch, we headed to a higher and more wooded arboretum which had many more birds. These included three bluetails (genus Tarsiger), two of which were females (or immature males) and not identifiable to species. They were either Red-flanked or Himalayan, the latter much more likely on probability, but one was a beautiful adult male Himalayan with its brighter and more extensive coloration and a shining blue, not white, forehead.  Other species here included a female Black-breasted Thrush, a flock of Long-tailed Minivets, a Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher, and eventually a male White-tailed Robin. Carrying on a short distance to the summit on the Burma border we enjoyed the wind as we studied the landscape to the north, including areas we had been to earlier. Three flying acrobatic Himalayan Buzzards were about and were well seen. Flocks of Common Rosefinches were also dropping into the vegetation, none pausing for scope studies. Asian House Martins were present. From here we went back down the mountain and on to Chiang Rai where we spent the night.

We spent our final morning at Non-Luang Lake, southeast of Chiang Rai in the Wiang Chai District. It was a cool (60’s) morning. We noted a number of Pheasant-tailed Jacanas, but waterfowl numbers were low and all were Lesser Whistling-ducks. Kimball scanned west with a scope, a distance well over a mile, and spotted more ducks that were not whistling-ducks, some of which appeared to be Garganey. We found our way over there and found a fine collection of birds. The waterfowl included 15 Northern Pintail, some 40 Garganey, a Northern Shoveler, 33 Ferruginous Ducks, two rare (for Thailand) female Common Pochards, and a female (also rare for Thailand) Tufted Duck. But the main excitement was three (two males, one female) Baer’s Pochards that were well-studied through scopes and digitally photographed. This is only the second time I have seen this world-endangered species and we spent a good deal of time studying them. They were formerly more numerous and regular as a winter visitor to northern and central Thailand. Other species noted here included two well-seen Yellow Bitterns, our first (for this tour) White-browed Crake, and two Plain-backed Sparrows. After an early lunch back in Chiang Rai we headed to the airport for an afternoon flight back to Bangkok where the tour concluded after a buffet dinner back at the Novotel.

On a personal note, I have done many tours over some 45 years of tour leading, but this one was really special, one that I will always remember. It was a great group to bird with and we saw lots of stunning species, including the “hidden,” yet beautiful male Hume’s Pheasant, the Himalayan Cutias, the Baer’s Pochards, and perhaps most of all the rare and poorly known Wood Snipe. I have seared into my memory the excitement that Pradit had on his face when he came to us upon finding it. I also want to thank my colleague and friend (of more than 50 years) Kimball Garrett for coming on the tour, and generously assisting us in so many ways.

Updated: n/a