Despite living in Thailand for over eight years, I’d somehow never managed to get myself to Chiang Mai, for birding or otherwise, so this October I finally put an end to that fact. After a few days hanging out with a friend in Chiang Mai town itself, I hired a car (not without mishap), and headed north to Chiang Dao for some long-awaited northern birded. And while the weather I encountered in Chiang Dao wasn’t perfect thanks to a late-season low-pressure system moving through, I was still able to get out and see some great locations and some really cool birds.
After picking up my rental car (and not the high-clearance pick-up I thought I was getting), I set off from Chiang Mai town to Chiang Dao. The weather was not great, and this coupled with unknown and at times winding roads meant my trip took a little over an hour; however by about 10 am I had arrived at Wat Tham Pha Plong within Chiang Dao Wildlife Sanctuary, and luckily enough, upon my arrival the weather began clearing and the rain reduced to a not much more than a light, intermittent sprinkle.
So, with the weather clearing and it being to early to check into my accommodation (Malee’s, just down the road), I decided to head off up the temple pathway to see what was around of the morning’s rain. While there were several interesting birds seen from the concrete pathway, such as Hill Blue Flycatcher, Purple-naped Spiderhunter and a magnificent, long-tailed male Blyth’s Paradise-flycatcher, the stream trail itself wasn’t really accessible with the stream too high tom comfortably follow without knee-high waders; nonetheless, walking among the forested temple was a pleasant experience regardless of the relative lack of bird life.
At around 1:00 pm, after I had finished lunch at Chiang Dao Nest restaurant, where Brown Shrike, Taiga Flycatcher and Red-whiskered Bulbuls (among other species) were seen at close quarters, I decided to head up the road to Muang Khong, into Chiang Dao Wildlife Sanctuary where I spent the best part of the next three and half hours, and wow, was the ascending road steep! Luckily, the road surface itself seemed relatively new, and that coupled with relatively little traffic meant that despite the conditions, the drive up wasn’t as bad as I’d initially feared. However, places to pull over to stop and do some birding were few and far between until just over 8 km from the entrance gate, but this site seemed quiet, and the best places to pull over for birds ended up being much further along the road.
I finally found a decent place to pull over a little over 15 km from the wildlife sanctuary’ checkpoint, at the turn off to village Ban Mae Kong Sai; here I was able to safely pull over and walk both along the bitumen Muang Khong road, and the dirt road leading down to the village. It took a little while for birds to show themselves, but once they did, quite a number of good species turned up, with the highlights being Eurasian Jay, a confiding Orange-breasted Trogon, Golden-fronted Leafbirds, several species of Minivets and Drongos, including a Lesser Racket-tailed and a few Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpeckers. After several hours of walking around the area, which is on a ridge allowing good views in the canopy at times, I decided to head back to my guesthouse, and on my drive back was afforded great views of a Rufous-winged Buzzard (one of a few lifers for my day).
Ebird Checklists for October 22nd:
Having rained all night, and quite heavily at some points, I was happy to find the weather overcast and wet, but not raining when I woke up, so headed up the road to the temple once again. The previous evening I had tried to arrange transport up to the Den Ya Kat substation of the wildlife sanctuary, but that ended fruitlessly, so my options were once again limited to the temple and the road to Muang Khong.
The overcast conditions made the path to the temple very dark, but there was nonetheless quite a bit of bird activity, with Buff-breasted Babbler and Streak Wren-babbler both seen along the path as well as both Little and Streaked Spiderhunters, White-throated Fantail and Black-throated Sunbird. Mountain Imperial Pigeons were also seen flying over and great views of a Crested Goshawk sitting on a dead tree were awaiting me as I returned to the carpark, as well as a pair of Black-hooded Orioles.
After a couple of hours birding around the temple, I headed back to Malees’ for breakfast, and at around 10 am, the rain started and persisted, at times quite heavily for several hours. During this time I decided to head into Chiang Dao town itself to check out the rice paddies and look for the wire-tailed swallows that reside there; however, it was during this time the rain began to fall it’s hardest, and I was left wondering what to do.
I finally decided to head back up the road to Muang Khong, thinking that maybe with the rain around the base of the mountain, it would be clearer up top, and luckily enough for me, this proved to be correct, and from just before 2 pm I was able to get a solid three hours of birding in; the conditions on top of the mountain were actually sunny and clear – though a bit wet from earlier rain – and the bird life was much more abundant than the previous day.
Having already driven along the road the day before, I was more active in looking for places to safely pull over, and I first found a place on a straight stretch of road that runs along a ridge just after the turn off for the village Ban Fa Suay (about 12.2 km from the entrance gate. It was here that I came across a small party of Japanese Tits, as well Velvet-fronted Nuthatches, several species of bulbuls, and an Asian Fairy-bluebird.
My next stop was after a bend less than kilometre along the road due to lots of bird activity in the trees on both sides of the road – a small hill above to the right, and a drop-off to the left. What initially caused me to stop was a large party of birds both flying along the right-hand side of the road, and to a lesser extent on the left-hand side. Once pulled over, a party of around twenty Common Woodshrikes was easily seen along with other birds in the passing feeding flock that included Large Cuckooshrike, Eurasian Jay and Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, among drongos and minvets.
My third stop along the road came a little under 2 km further along the road (about 14.8 km from the gate). It was here that a safe place to stop the car was possible on the right-hand side of the road, about 50 m before a trail lead up a small incline. Aside from having a safe place to stop, very loud, and visible bird activity was the main reason for my stop here, and after not much time the species starting piling up, including several species of drongo and minivet, including my first Small Minivet of the trip, views of a Greater Yellownape, bulbuls, nuthatches and great views of a couple of Eurasian Jays which appeared to be quite common along the higher stretches of this road.
After walking both along the roadside and up the small trail, I got back into my car and after a short drive, found that I wasn’t far from my turn-around point from the previous day – the turn-off to Ban Mae Kong Sai at 15.6 km from the gate – so once again decided to stop for a walk. This day I walked further along the dirt road that lead to Ban Mae Kong Sai, and it was here that I once again ran in Eurasian Jays, Greater Racket-tailed Drongos, Golden-fronted Leafbirds as well as both a single Greater and Lesser Yellownape in the same pine tree!
By late afternoon, the clouds had started to slowly move in, and as I didn’t want to traverse the steep road back down the mountain in either the rain or dark, I headed back. One last bonus for the day on my trip back down the mountain came in the form of a couple of Rufous-winged Buzzards, one of which allowed me to get quite close to take some nice pics.
Ebird Checklists for October 23rd:
Up again early this day and again off to the nearby temple to check out what was about. It had once again rained throughout the night, but by morning the conditions were misty, but clearing to sunny. With these conditions, there was more activity than my previous few trips here, and with this, several new species were added to my trip list including a single Grey-eyed Bulbul, several Ruby-cheeked Sunbirds, a Yellow-vented Flowerpecker and numerous Little Spiderhunters and Puff-throated Babblers.
A couple of hours of morning birding at the temple was followed by breakfast and a quick walk around the grounds of Malee’s before packing and leaving, and from second floor balcony of their now dis-used restaurant I was afforded good views of a perched Shikra. Given the sunny weather, after leaving Malee’s I decided to once again have a shot at the Wire-tailed Swallows at the nearby paddies, and after parking at a nearby coffee shop and walking besides some fields, a pair of these swallows was easily distinguishable from the more numerous Barn Swallows – not buy their ‘wires’ but by the much brighter blue of their backs and their brick-red crowns. Also at the fields were several Grey-headed Lapwings and a single Black-winged Kite.
Ebird Checklists for October 24th:
Driving back into Chiang Mai from Chiang Dao took a little over an hour, and the weather by now was warm and sunny. A quick stop-off at the airport to pick up Alan, a friend and fellow birder, and we then off to Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s tallest mountain, for a few nights. The drive to the national park and then on to the Mr. Daeng’s guesthouse took the best part of two hours, after which we checked in; by the time we were ready to go birding it was about 3 pm, so we decided to head up the mountain a little to the second checkpoint, where we parked and birded on the roadside for the next few hours.
Despite having been hot and sunny lower down the mountain, at around 4 pm, rain begin falling, and did so for the next 30 minutes or so in varying degrees of heaviness, from very light, to heavy enough for us to jump back into the car. Nonetheless, the birding activity at this site was very high, and given I’d never birded at this altitude in Thailand, the lifers were stacking up; Golden-throated Barbet, Clicking Shrike-babbler, Yellow-cheeked Tit, Chestnut-vented Nuthatch, Mountain Bulbul, Chestnut-crowned Warbler, Yunnan and Rufous-winged Fulvetta, and Spectacled Barwing were all new to me, and were accompanied by other species including Mountain Imperial Pigeon, Fire-breasted Flowerpecker, and Flavescent Bulbul.
At around 5:30 pm, Alan and I decided to call it a day, and headed back to Mr. Daeng’s for dinner and a few well-earned beers, and while here we bumped into and American birder, Richard, who was also staying there, and with whom with birded the following couple of days.
Ebird Checklists for October 24th (Doi Inthanon):
Our plan was to get to the summit just after 6 am, so it was the usual early start in the dark to our day. After a quick stop-off a viewpoint just after the stupas to check out the rising sun and sea of clouds, we starting birding in earnest along the Angka forest trail at the summit at around 6:30 am. The short walk to the summit proper along with the viewing deck were unfortunately closed for maintenance, so we quickly made our way to the aforementioned trail – a boardwalk over Thailand’s only spagnum bog.
We didn’t have to wait long for the birds to make their presence known with Silver-eared Laughingthrushes and a pair of White-browed Shortwings being the first to appear, while a little further along the trail, Snowy-browed Flycatcher, Ashy-throated Warbler and Yellow-bellied Fairy-fantail were easily found, along with plenty of Rufous-winged Fulvettas, a pair of Chestnut-vented Nuthatches and several Chestnut-tailed Minlas.
Along the trail we met up with the Richard from our guesthouse, and after around two hours of exploring the boardwalk, we headed up to the coffee shop to get some much needed caffeine and food. Just outside the trail entrance, we came upon a group of 10 or so Chinese birders with huge telephoto lenses pointed into a tree, but we were unable to see what the fuss was about and continued to the coffee shop.
At the coffee shop itself there were birds everywhere, including many more, much more easily seen Silver-eared Laughingthrushes and Chestnut-tailed Minlas, along with several quite tame Dark-backed Sibias. But perhaps the most comical moment occurred when I went to the toilet; behind the urinals, a flock of perhaps 25 Ashy Wood-pigeons were roosting in a large tree. I went and got the other two, and it was quite the sight – three birders with binoculars and cameras hanging out behind the toilets!
We spent around an hour sitting, talking and drinking around the coffee shop before deciding to head down the stupas and the surrounding, cultivated gardens; Alan and I drove down while Richard rode his motorbike (which he’d hired and driven all the way from Chiang Mai!). Richard set off first, and while Alan and I were walking back to the car, we chanced upon several Gould’s Sunbirds in a roadside tree – undoubtedly what the Chinese photographers had been hunting earlier!
At the stupas, one has to annoyingly paid an additional fee (even though to be there you would’ve already paid to get into the national park), and while the modern looking stupas were nice enough, we were on the look out for birds. The gardens themselves offered up very little, but once at a small clearing above the toilets (once again!), barely big enough for the three of us to stand in, overlooking a steep and tangled gully, the birds came in waves. We stood in the clearing for around an hour and turned up some great birds, several of them lifers, including Hume’s Treecreeper, Little Pied Flycatcher and at least one calling Blyth’s Leaf Warbler among the numerous phylloscopus warblers, but the highlight was definitely close views of male and female birds of three species of sunbird: Green-tailed, Black-throated, and more Gould’s, which Richard had missed out on early. Also while here, a smallish falcon flew over, but due to the lack of visibility, no one got a good enough look to confidently ID it.
We following our time by the gully with a quick lunch at the small canteen located at the stupas, before deciding to explore some of the sites further down the mountain in the afternoon. We offered for Richard to join us, so after he’d ridden his motorbike back to the guesthouse, we all got into the car and heading down to Km 13 with the hope of locating Black-headed Woodpecker. Unfortunately, neither the woodpecker or many other birds were found – it was the middle of the day, and given we were quite a fair distance back down the mountain, the rise in temperature was noticeable. We did, however, see both a Blue Rock-thrush and a Blue Whistling-thrush, and a Grey Wagtail.
We decided that our last stop for the day would be Siriphum Waterfall which is located at the King’s Project, further back up the mountain, not far from our guesthouse. Once again the birding was a little quiet, but we did enjoy the cooler temperature, and the waterfall itself was quite impressive, though often obscured by the heavy foliage once close. On our walk back from the waterfall we came across our best two birds for the afternoon, a first-year male Zappey’s Flycatcher, and at a small weir, a female Plumbeous Redstart – a nice way to the finish the day. We then made our way to the restaurant at the King’s Project which was washed down by a few cold beers back at out guesthouse.
Ebird Checklists for October 25th:
We had one last morning at Doi Inthanon before heading back to Chiang Mai and onward to Bangkok, so once again decided to scan the early morning roadsides just after the second checkpoint, about 15 minutes further up the mountain; and once again, this section of road proved to be very birdy. At least six species of bulbul were present: Black, Flavescent, Black-crested, Mountain, Striated and Ashy, as well as Yellow-browed and Yellow-cheeked Tits, Short-billed Minivets, a pair of Stripe-breasted Woodpeckers, a Large Niltava, a Mountain Tailorbird, and a flock of Spot-winged Grosbeak, among many other species – this stretch of road proved to be a very productive place for us on both of our visits.
Having spent close to two and a half hours along the roadside, we decided to give one last location a try before driving back to Chiang Mai – a jeep track that lead off the main road at around Km 34.5. This trail heads up a couple of small hills at the beginning before flattening out, going through a small stand of pine trees and coming to a fork at the top of a hill. Supposedly the trail down the hill heads to a ranger station, but we decided to turn left, which leads to a viewpoint overlooking a valley. From the main road to the viewpoint is about 2.5km, and along much of this trail, for us, the forest was very quiet, with the first couple of hundred being the most productive. Nonetheless, I was lucky enough to see a Slaty-backed Tesia hurry across the path, an ID that was confirmed once it started calling from the safety of the undergrowth.
So after close to two hours spent at Km 34, it was now nearly 11:30 am, so we decided it best to get back to the guesthouse to prepare for our drive back it Chiang Mai – a drive that took us close to three hours.
In all, my first experience of birding in the north of Thailand was thoroughly enjoyable, and I can’t wait to get back there to explore both these places again, and locations further north. My total species list for my trip to Chiang Mai totaled 137 species, of which 38 were lifers.
Ebird Checklists for October 26th:
BIRD LIST (137 identified species):
LOCATION CODE – Location seen first
CD – Chiang Dao WS (all locations)
DI – Doi Inthanon NP (all locations)
EW – Elsewhere on my Chiang Mai trip (incidental birding)
- Lesser Whistling-Duck (EW – friend’s house in CM)
- Feral Pigeon (EW – friend’s house in CM)
- Ashy Wood-Pigeon (DI – summit)
- Red Collared-Dove (EW – friend’s house in CM)
- Spotted Dove (EW – friend’s house in CM)
- Zebra Dove (CD – rice paddies)
- Thick-billed Pigeon (CD – Wat Tham Pha Plong)
- Mountain Imperial-Pigeon (CD – Wat Tham Pha Plong)
- Green-billed Malkoha (CD – Wat Tham Pha Plong)
- Drongo-Cuckoo (CD – Muang Khong Rd)
- House Swift (CD – Wat Tham Pha Plong)
- Crested Treeswift (EW – at a viewpoint in Phrao)
- Grey-headed Lapwing (CD – rice paddies)
- Little Egret (EW – friend’s house in CM)
- Cattle Egret (CD – rice paddies)
- Striated Heron (DI – KM 13)
- Black-winged Kite (CD – rice paddies)
- Rufous-winged Buzzard (CD – Muang Khong Rd)
- Crested Goshawk (CD – Wat Tham Pha Plong)
- Shikra (CD – Malee’s)
- Asian Barred Owlet (CD – Wat Tham Pha Plong)
- Orange-breasted Trogon (CD – Muang Khong Rd)
- White-throated Kingfisher (EW – friend’s house in CM)
- Green Bee-eater (EW – friend’s house in CM)
- Indian Roller (DI – KM 13)
- Golden-throated Barbet (DI – Checkpoint 2)
- Blue-throated Barbet (DI – Siriphum Waterfall)
- Grey-capped Woodpecker (CD – Muang Khong Rd)
- Stripe-breasted Woodpecker (DI – Checkpoint 2)
- Lesser Yellownape (CD – Muang Khong Rd)
- Greater Yellownape (CD – Muang Khong Rd)
- Common Woodshrike (CD – Muang Khong Rd)
- Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike (CD – Muang Khong Rd)
- Ashy Woodswallow (EW – friend’s house in CM)
- Common Iora (CD – Muang Khong Rd)
- Small Minivet (CD – Muang Khong Rd)
- Short-billed Minivet (DI – Checkpoint 2)
- Scarlet Minivet (CD – Muang Khong Rd)
- Ashy Minivet (CD – Muang Khong Rd)
- Swinhoe’s Minivet (CD – Muang Khong Rd)
- Large Cuckooshrike (CD – Muang Khong Rd)
- Brown Shrike (CD – Chiang Dao Nest)
- Clicking Shrike-Babbler (DI – Checkpoint 2)
- Black-hooded Oriole (CD – Wat Tham Pha Plong)
- Black Drongo (EW – friend’s house in CM)
- Ashy Drongo (CD – Muang Khong Rd)
- Bronzed Drongo (CD – Wat Tham Pha Plong)
- Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo (CD – Muang Khong Rd)
- Hair-crested Drongo (CD – Muang Khong Rd)
- Greater Racket-tailed Drongo (CD – Muang Khong Rd)
- White-throated Fantail (CD – Wat Tham Pha Plong)
- Black-naped Monarch (CD – Wat Tham Pha Plong)
- Blyth’s Paradise-Flycatcher (CD – Wat Tham Pha Plong)
- Eurasian Jay (CD – Muang Khong Rd)
- Large-billed Crow (CD – Muang Khong Rd)
- Barn Swallow (EW – friend’s house in CM)
- Wire-tailed Swallow (CD – rice paddies)
- Straited Swallow (CD – Muang Khong Rd)
- Asian House-Martin (EW – in CM town)
- Yellow-bellied Fairy-Fantail (DI – summit)
- Grey-headed Canary-Flycatcher (CD – Muang Khong Rd)
- Yellow-browed Tit (DI – Checkpoint 2)
- Japanese Tit (CD – Muang Khong Rd)
- Yellow-cheeked Tit (DI – Checkpoint 2)
- Chestnut-vented Nuthatch (DI – Checkpoint 2)
- Velvet-fronted Nuthatch (CD – Muang Khong Rd)
- Hume’s Treecreeper (DI – stupas)
- Black-crested Bulbul (CD – Muang Khong Rd)
- Striated Bulbul (DI – Checkpoint 2)
- Red-whiskered Bulbul (EW – friend’s house in CM)
- Sooty-headed Bulbul (EW – friend’s house in CM)
- Stripe-throated Bulbul (CD – Wat Tham Pha Plong)
- Flavescent Bulbul (DI – Checkpoint 2)
- Streak-eared Bulbul (EW – friend’s house in CM)
- Puff-throated Bulbul (CD – Wat Tham Pha Plong)
- Grey-eyed Bulbul (CD – Wat Tham Pha Plong)
- Black Bulbul (DI – Checkpoint 2)
- Ashy Bulbul (DI – Checkpoint 2)
- Mountain Bulbul (DI – Checkpoint 2)
- Slaty-bellied Tesia (DI – KM 34.5)
- Mountain Tailorbird (DI – Checkpoint 2)
- Ashy-throated Bulbul (DI – summit)
- Yellow-browed Warbler (CD – Wat Tham Pha Plong)
- Chestnut-crowed Warbler (DI – Checkpoint 2)
- Blyth’s Leaf-Warbler (DI – stupas)
- Common Tailorbird (CD – Muang Khong Rd)
- Rufescent Prinia (CD – Muang Khong Rd)
- Grey-breasted Prinia (CD – Muang Khong Rd)
- Oriental White-eye (CD – Muang Khong Rd)
- Pin-striped Tit-babbler (CD – Wat Tham Pha Plong)
- Rufous-winged Fulvetta (DI – Checkpoint 2)
- Puff-throated Babbler (CD – Wat Tham Pha Plong)
- Buff-breasted Babbler (CD – Wat Tham Pha Plong)
- Streaked Wren-babbler (CD – Wat Tham Pha Plong)
- Yunnan Fulvetta (DI – Checkpoint 2)
- Silver-eared Laughingthrush (DI -summit)
- Dark-backed Sibia (DI -summit)
- Spectacled Barwing (DI – Checkpoint 2)
- Chestnut-tailed Minla (DI -summit)
- Asian Fairy-Bluebird (CD – Muang Khong Rd)
- Oriental Magpie-Robin (EW – friend’s house in CM)
- White-rumped Shama (CD – Wat Tham Pha Plong)
- Hill Blue Flycatcher (CD – Wat Tham Pha Plong)
- Large Niltave (DI – Checkpoint 2)
- Zappey’s Flycatcher (DI – Siriphum Waterfall)
- Verditer Flycatcher (DI – Checkpoint 2)
- White-browed Shortwing (DI – summit)
- Blue Whistling-thrush (DI – summit)
- Snowy-browed Flycatcher (DI – summit)
- Little Pied Flycatcher (DI – stupas)
- Taiga Flycatcher (CD – Chiang Dao Nest)
- Plumbeous Redstart (DI – Siriphum Waterfall)
- Blue Rock-thrush (EW – friend’s house in CM)
- Pied Bushchat (EW – friend’s house in CM)
- Black-collared Starling (EW – friend’s house in CM)
- Asian Pied Starling (EW – friend’s house in CM)
- Common Myna (EW – friend’s house in CM)
- White-vented Myna (EW – friend’s house in CM)
- Blue-winged Leafbird (CD – Wat Tham Pha Plong)
- Golden-fronted Leafbird (CD – Muang Khong Rd)
- Yellow-vented Flowerpecker (CD – Wat Tham Pha Plong)
- Fire-breasted Flowerpecker (DI – Checkpoint 2)
- Ruby-cheeked Sunbird (CD – Wat Tham Pha Plong)
- Olive-backed Sunbird (CD – Malee’s)
- Black-throated Sunbird (CD – Wat Tham Pha Plong)
- Gould’s Sunbird (DI – summit)
- Green-tailed Sunbird (DI -stupas)
- Little Spiderhunter (CD – Wat Tham Pha Plong)
- Purple-naped Spiderhunter (CD – Wat Tham Pha Plong)
- Streaked Spiderhunter (CD – Wat Tham Pha Plong)
- Grey Wagtail (CD – Wat Tham Pha Plong)
- Paddyfield Pipit (EW – friend’s house in CM)
- Spot-winged Grosbeak (DI – Checkpoint 2)
- House Sparrow (EW – friend’s house in CM)
- Eurasian Sparrow (EW – friend’s house in CM)
- White-rumped Munia (EW – at a viewpoint in Phrao)
- Scaly-breasted Munia (EW – friend’s house in CM)