Sunday, March 25, 2012

Thailand 2 - Laem Phak Bia = White-faced Plover

One afternoon we took two small "longtail" boats out to Laem Phak Bia south of Pak Thale, an area of sandspit and islands reached by a river channel through mangroves. Here's Pipit, our local tour operator from ETS, Educational Travel Services. ETS handled all the local arrangements, and Pipit made everything seem easy. The boat operator tracks the presence of White-faced Plover, a species that was described by Swinhoe in 1870 as Charadrius dealbatus and then confused with Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinussubspecies in the area. The White-faced Plover is quite different from the Kentish dealbatus subspecies illustrated in Robson's Birds of Thailand and other field guides. Here's the White-faced Plover. Although 2 or 3 of these stunning plovers were present earlier in the year, only one was left. They are early migrants and were already heading north. Recent work (Rheint et al. 2011) supports full species status for this taxon even though it is not genetically distinct from Kentish Plover.

The sand islands and sand spit were full of terns including Little, Common, Great Crested and Lesser Crested. Whiskered Terns were common in the river channel. Brown-hooded Gulls were present, but no other gulls. Shorebirds were heavy on the plovers, with Malaysian, White-capped, Kentish, and Lesser Sand-Plover.

On the way in, vast mudflats were exposed along the sand spit and mangroves. Many more shorebirds and herons were feeding on the mudflats.
One bird we were looking for in this habitat was Chinese Egret. We found one with a Little Egret at the back of a small area that was still flooded. Here's the Chinese Egret on the left, and the Little Egret on the right .
The mudflats were also home to mudskippers, amphibious fish that walk on their pectoral fins. These fish were common, and wriggled quickly back into the water at the approach of our boat.

We got close to Little Cormorants perched on snags along the river.
F. E. Rheint et al. 2011. Conflict between Genetic and Phenotypic Differentiation: The Evolutionary History of a ‘Lost and Rediscovered’ Shorebird. PloS ONE:6(11): e26995. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0026995

P. R. Kennerly et al. 2008. Rediscovery of a long-lost Charadrius plover from South-East Asia. Forktail 24:63-79.

Thailand 1 - Do You Know the Way to Pak Thale?

Pak Thale is a series of salt concentration ponds about 3 hours drive south of Bangkok. And no, I don't know the way to Pak Thale - but the last turn before the salt ponds is signed with an image of a Spoon-billed Sandpiper! Spoon-billed Sandpiper is designated as Critically Endangered by the IUCN with an estimated breeding population in 2009-2010 of 120-200 pairs (or fewer). The causes of the continuing population decline were unknown until recent work showed that hunting on the winter grounds was likely the driving factor (see We were at Pak Thale on February 28, 29, and 30, 2012 and I saw 31 species of shorebirds at Pak Thale.

Spoon-billed Sandpiper is an enigmatic small shorebird that is readily recognized when the distinctive spatulate bill is seen. One of the accessible places in the world to see them is Thailand, and Pak Thale has more individuals than other sites including Kohk Kham. The area is a salt works, so sea water is sent into shallow ponds where the water evaporates and the brine sent to yet shallower ponds, ending in the shallow sterile ponds where the salt crystals form and are harvested for sale. I'm hoping that the locals start selling "Spoonie Salt" to benefit the Sandpiper.
The Spoon-billed Sandpipers are a very small number of the thousands of shorebirds that gather in the salt ponds either to feed in the less salty shallow ponds, or to roost and await low tide on the adjacent mudflats. Here's a mixed flock of Great Knot, Black-bellied Plover, some peep (Rufous-necked Stint), Bar-tailed Godwit, sand-plovers, and who knows what all!
Here's a flock on the ground, both species of Sand-Plover, some in nice plumage; a Spoon-billed Sandpiper near the center (and another couple less obvious). Shorebirds were scattered all over the ponds, with the Eurasian Curlew in a large single-species flock - except for a couple of Far Eastern Curlews identifiable in flight. We
Here's a nice study of an Old World Great Egret in breeding color, with a black bill, blackish-red legs and a turquoise face. On one side is an Intermediate Egret with a short yellow bill (and a seriously great name!) and a Little Egret.

But the extension was named for the Spoonie, so the Spoon-billed Sandpiper was the star of the show. We worked hard on March 1 to find some Nordmann's Greenshanks (aka Spotted Greenshank). We'd been unable to access their favored roosting site due to salt workers and trucks working in the area at low tided, but we managed to walk in and find four birds roosting with Black-tailed Godwits on the last morning. But here's the star of the show in a digipic, we didn't press the birds.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Thailand 1 - Introduction

My latest trip was atypical for my personal travel in several respects. Most of my birding trips to date have been in the Americas and have been with small groups of friends. I went to Thailand to join Jon Dunn and WINGS "Spoon-billed Sandpiper Extension" (after skipping the three week long main tour) and then continued on the "Peninsular Thailand and Gurney's Pitta" tour. I've never been on a commercial tour before, but it made a lot of sense this time. I didn't have time to plan a trip, I can't read or speak Thai, and I wanted to see as many birds as I could in my limited vacation time. I had three free days that I spent birding, two with Nick Upton of the Thai Birding website (, and one with outfitter ETC (Educational Travel Center

So why Thailand? Here's three good reasons - the food, the people, and the birds. Who could argue with all those weird and colorful Asian birds? A more telling reason would be that I've heard Jon talk about Thailand for decades, and I decided to make the time to go this year.

So Thailand. I flew on miles on the now-defunct Continental, and was able to save considerable miles by flying from Houston to Frankfurt to Bangkok, rather than from Houston to Tokyo or Seoul to Bangkok. Mine not to question the airlines, but there were seats for 65K miles going via Europe and it was 200K for the best connections going the other way. Flying on miles worked out OK, though somewhere in the United/Continental merger Continental's policy of allowing upgrades on flights purchased with miles was lost. I didn't make the time to sit on hold over an hour with Thai Airlines to get seat assignments for the legs on that airline, so I ended up in a middle seat on one flight and bulkhead window with NO leg room (thanks to the overwing door) on another. Oh well. It was cheap.

Arriving in country and transferring to the hotel were easy, especially if I ignored the instructions and went straight to the tour hotel's shuttle service. The hotel, the airport adjacent Hotel Suvarnabhumi, was quite posh. I arrived at 6:30 AM and was able to do some easy birding from my window over the courtyard and walking around the hotel entrance, but I didn't see anything that I didn't see during the tour. It was fun to puzzle out the sounds and glimpses of birds in the courtyard and flip through the field guide to identify the birds. And difficult groups, like the swifts seen through a scope as they flew around airport buildings, those were firmly identified only after consultation with Jon.

The hotel has several internal restaurants, and there is nothing else around. It also has a 24 hour check in, with guests arriving at all hours and rooms valid for 24 hours after check in.