Bluethroat and Striated Grassbird, Phnom Krom rice fields, February 7th

Marshes near Phnom Krom, about 10km south of Siem Reap. This is an excellent area for a range of marshland birds and wintering "Sibes".
Marshes near Phnom Krom, south of Siem Reap. This is an excellent area for a range of marshland birds and wintering “Sibes”.

This rather well-known birding area, about 10km to the south of Siem Reap along the road to the ferry docks, consists of rice fields, marshes, scrub and open grassland, overlooked by the prominent Phnom Krom hill. A large range of species has been recorded here, although much of the area is hard to access.

The personal highlight of my 4-hour visit this morning was good views of several singing Striated Grassbirds, on bushtops and engaged in parachuting song flights. This is a bird I have only ever seen on one previous occasion, also in Cambodia. Cotton Pygmy-Goose, Indian Spot-billed Duck and Plaintive Cuckoo were also year ticks here. Wandering into the rice paddies along the edge of a small creek, I flushed a probable Locustella warbler from almost under my feet, which flew just a short distance before abruptly disappearing among the rice stems. Its behaviour, size and coloration were suggestive of Lanceolated Warbler, likely a common but highly elusive wintering species here, but I just didn’t get enough on it to be 100% sure.

Nearby, I had brief flight views of a Bluethroat. Later, on the way back to Siem Reap, a short stop in a good-looking marshy area produced excellent views of a second individual – a non-breeding plumaged male – right out in the open and cocking its tail in characteristic fashion.

Other notable species seen in the Phnom Krom area: Asian Openbill, Yellow Bittern, Purple Heron, Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Green-billed Malkoha, Oriental Reed and many Dusky Warblers, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Siberian Stonechat and Paddyfield Pipit. A notable miss was White-browed Crake, which is often reported by visiting birders at this location – I will have to see if I can make time for another visit while in Siem Reap.

2015 Year Ticks: Striated Grassbird, Cotton Pygmy-Goose, Indian Spot-billed Duck, Plaintive Cuckoo, Bluethroat (total 252).

Alexandrine Parakeet and Black Baza, Angkor Temples area, February 6th

Angkor Wat - a very popular tourist attraction. However, it is possible to find a good range of forest birds in the surrounding woodland.
Angkor Wat – a very popular tourist attraction. However, it is possible to find a range of forest birds in the surrounding woodland.

No visit to Siem Reap is complete without spending at least one day visiting the famous temples of Angkor. Fortunately for birders, the temples area is heavily wooded and rather rich in bird life – even a short jaunt into the forest is likely to turn up at least a few interesting sightings.

The Ta Prohm temple is guaranteed to produce sightings of Red-breasted Parakeet, and I was lucky today with a pair of the much less common Alexandrine Parakeet in a dead tree near the west gate. I also saw a Black Baza here, while at Angkor Wat the pick of the bunch was a small flock of Ashy Minivets.

2015 Year Ticks: Ashy Minivet, Ashy Drongo, Taiga Flycatcher, Asian Brown Flycatcher, Black-naped Oriole, Black-headed Bulbul, Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker, Black Baza, Red-breasted Parakeet, Alexandrine Parakeet (total 247).

Cambodia: Phnom Penh to Siem Reap by boat, February 5th

Interesting riverside scenery along the way to Siem Reap.
Interesting riverside scenery along the way to Siem Reap.

In four previous visits to Cambodia, I had never done this particular boat ride before – and although I wasn’t expecting to see any particularly special birds along the way, I figured I would definitely see more from the boat than I would from the bus!

The boat follows the river upstream from Phnom Penh, mainly on quite a wide river lined with shabby human habitations for almost all of its length. Occasional narrower sections of river were generally the most productive for birds. Later in the journey, the boat crosses the vast expanse of the Tonle Sap lake (where there were no birds far from shore apart from a few terns), and at the other side of the lake there is just a short stretch of channel before the boat docks. The route doesn’t go anywhere near the Prek Toal bird sanctuary, so my chances of the likes of Greater Adjutant and Milky Stork were fairly remote – and so it proved, as I saw none of the rare specialities of more remote areas of the Tonle Sap.

Highlights of the seven-hour trip were two Oriental Darters, a few Painted Storks soaring among the Asian Openbills near Siem Reap port, an unexpected Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker that flew directly over the boat, lots of Pied and White-throated Kingfishers, a handful of Brahminy and Black-shouldered Kites, Shikra, Yellow Bittern, and the occasional Caspian Tern among the thousands of Whiskered Terns. It was also good to get Red-rumped Swallow and Sand Martin, two common and widespread swallow species in Europe and Asia, finally under the belt for the year.

2015 Year Ticks: Oriental Darter, Shikra, Pied Kingfisher, Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker, Red-rumped Swallow, Sand Martin (total 237).

Wonderful old tree beside the river bank, en route to Siem Reap.
Wonderful old tree beside the river bank, en route to Siem Reap.

Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Nordmann’s Greenshank and Pallas’s Gull, Pak Thale/Laem Pak Bia, January 31st and February 1st

Laem Pak Bia sandspit ... THE site for White-faced Plover, Malaysian Plover and Chinese Egret, plus a big gull and tern roost.
Laem Pak Bia sandspit … THE site for White-faced Plover, Malaysian Plover and Chinese Egret, plus a big gull and tern roost.

Two fantastic days in this ultra-rich birding area of central Thailand, famous for its wintering shorebirds (especially the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper). I saw 124 bird species in the area during my visit, which is quite remarkable considering the only woodland habitat here is the rather bird-poor mangroves.

The main focus in this area is shorebirds, of which I saw 36 species – basically a roll call of migrant and wintering East Asian waders. Full list and very approximate numbers for some species:

  • Spoon-billed Sandpiper 2
  • Nordmann’s Greenshank 3
  • Asian Dowitcher 1
  • Red-necked Phalarope 5
  • White-faced Plover 2
  • Malaysian Plover 2
  • Grey-headed Lapwing 1
  • Red-wattled Lapwing
  • Greater Sandplover 4
  • Mongolian Plover 500
  • Kentish Plover
  • Little Ringed Plover
  • Grey Plover
  • Pacific Golden Plover
  • Great Knot 500
  • Red Knot 5
  • Eastern Black-tailed Godwit 300
  • Bar-tailed Godwit 12
  • Eurasian Curlew
  • Whimbrel 3
  • Sanderling 4
  • Curlew Sandpiper
  • Dunlin
  • Broad-billed Sandpiper
  • Temminck’s Stint 1
  • Long-toed Stint
  • Red-necked Stint
  • Marsh Sandpiper
  • Common Greenshank
  • Spotted Redshank
  • Common Redshank
  • Ruff 5
  • Wood Sandpiper
  • Common Sandpiper
  • Common Snipe
  • Black-winged Stilt

Other highlights:

  • Pallas’s Gull 5
  • Lesser Crested Tern 4
  • Greater Crested Tern
  • Gull-billed Tern
  • White-winged Tern
  • Ruddy-breasted Crake 3
  • Painted Stork 3
  • Cinnamon Bittern 3
  • Purple Heron 2
  • Striated Heron 5
  • Ruddy Shelduck 1
  • Eastern Marsh Harrier 2
  • Brahminy Kite 5
  • Peregrine 2
  • Collared Kingfisher
  • Black-capped Kingfisher
  • White-throated Kingfisher
  • Indian Nightjar 3
  • Racket-tailed Treepie 4
  • Plain-backed Sparrow 2
  • Chestnut Munia 10
  • Baya Weaver 15
  • Oriental Reed Warbler 4
  • Black-browed Reed Warbler 3 seen, many heard
  • Golden-bellied Gerygone

Site by site:

Pak Thale:

This is the best-known site in the area for Spoon-billed Sandpiper. It’s an area of salt pans and pools just inland from the sea, well signposted from the coast road east of Phetchaburi. There are currently two Spoon-billed Sandpipers present at this site; with patience and a telescope they can be fairly easily found among the large numbers of stints and other small sandpipers here. Apart from the spoon-shaped bill, which can sometimes be surprisingly hard to notice, they can readily be told at a distance by their size (noticeably larger than Red-necked Stint), extensive white on the face, and feeding action. More subtly, while they loosely associate with Red-necked Stints, they tend to “do their own thing” instead of scurrying around with the stints.

Also here, a large flock of several hundred Great Knot also held three Nordmann’s Greenshank, my most-wanted shorebird and the main reason I returned to Pak Thale after seeing most of the other specialities on my first visit two years ago. These endangered waders often seem to associate with the Great Knot flocks here. They are easy to distinguish from Common Greenshank, being somewhat paler and more uniform grey and white, shorter necked and shorter legged than their common cousin. The bill of Nordmann’s is especially thick-based compared to Common. To my eyes, they have a weird shape – rather pot-bellied, but the belly is squared off, like a squat and badly designed Common Greenshank.

Another highlight at this location was perfect views, in excellent morning light, of a flock of perhaps 500 Mongolian Plovers and 200 Great Knots, which also contained low single-figure counts of Greater Sandplover, Red-necked Phalarope, Red Knot and Sanderling.

Pak Thale reedbeds:

Less than half a mile inland from Pak Thale, an extensive area of reedbeds and pools gives birders the opportunity to see birds that don’t occur on the salt pans and marshes of the coast.

Even during my mid-morning and early afternoon visits on a rather windy day, there were plenty of birds to be seen – this site would probably repay an early morning visit on a calm day.

Highlights here included Purple Heron, Cinnamon Bittern, Yellow Bittern, Painted Stork, Ruddy-breasted Crake, Bronze-winged Jacana, Grey-headed Lapwing, Chestnut Munia and Baya Weaver, with Plain-backed Sparrow and Indian Nightjar in a dry area nearby. Black-browed Reed Warblers were astonishingly numerous here, with at least one bird calling from every patch of reeds – a mist-netting session here could be very productive in finding rarer Acrocephalus and Locustella warblers.

Abandoned Building:

An area of dry scrub, salt pans and a rubbish dump near Laem Pak Bia, easily identified by its famous landmark half-completed building.

Several visits here revealed a Spoon-billed Sandpiper (one of two in this area), an Asian Dowitcher, a Temminck’s Stint, and three Ruff among lots of commoner waders. A Peregrine hunted from the abandoned building, but there was no sign of the reported Brahminy Starling at the rubbish dump.

Laem Pak Bia sandspit:

A high tide visit with the legendary Mr Daeng, who doesn’t speak a lot of English but certainly knows his birds. The cost of the two-hour boat trip through the mangroves to the sand spit has increased to 1,000 baht since my last visit, but coffee and biscuits are now provided! We saw almost all the special birds here, with my main target Pallas’s Gull represented by no fewer than 5 individuals at the high tide roost (including 2 adults). Among the Caspian, Great Crested, Whiskered and Little Terns were 4 Lesser Crested Terns and 6 Gull-billed Terns. Just two Malaysian Plovers and two White-faced Plovers were seen, but views of both were excellent. We had to wait a while for a Chinese Egret, but the bird put on quite a show when it finally arrived – and we saw another on the way back through the mangroves. However, we didn’t see or hear Mangrove Whistler, which is rare and elusive here and very much an outside bet at this location.

King’s Project:

Just north of Laem Pak Bia village, this area of ponds and mangroves is a good place to see large numbers of birds at close range from the car. It was the only place we connected with Indian Cormorant and White-winged Tern, both of which are common here.

We spent some time in the mangrove forest, which is rather poor in species variety, but the birds which do occur (Golden-bellied Gerygone, Dusky Warbler, Racket-tailed Treepie, Oriental Magpie-Robin and Pied Fantail) are very common. Again, we drew a blank with Mangrove Whistler. Late in the afternoon, we loitered around the experimental reedbed plots, where a Black-browed Reed Warbler showed several times and a Ruddy-breasted Crake gave reasonable views. Finally, after dark, we had spectacular views (down to two feet!) of an Indian Nightjar in flight and on the ground – a lifer for me and a fantastic way to end the day.

Indian Nightjar at the King's Project, Laem Pak Bia .... photo taken at a range of about three feet!
Indian Nightjar at the King’s Project, Laem Pak Bia …. photo taken at a range of about three feet!

Lifers: Nordmann’s Greenshank, Pallas’s Gull, Indian Nightjar, Baya Weaver (total 1,797).

South-east Asia/Thailand ticks: White-winged Tern, Yellow Bittern, Ruddy-breasted Crake, Whimbrel, Ruff, Temminck’s Stint, Black-browed Reed Warbler (total 637).

2015 Year List current total: 230.