Kalij Pheasant, Ratchet-tailed Treepie, Kaeng Krachan, March 6th-9th

It's not strictly speaking a bird, but even the most single-minded of birders would feel a sense of awe at the sight of a wild Asian Elephant. Kaeng Krachan is one of the best places in Thailand to encounter one, although even here sightings are far from guaranteed.
It’s not strictly speaking a bird, but even the most single-minded of birders feels a sense of awe at the sight of a wild Asian Elephant. Kaeng Krachan is one of the best places in Thailand to encounter one, although even here sightings are far from guaranteed.

Last Wednesday morning, I was comfortably settled into my seat in a plane at Bangkok airport, all ready to take off to Kathmandu, when my flight was suddenly cancelled due to a minor crash on the runway there (thankfully no one was seriously hurt). As it was unclear exactly when flights to Nepal would resume, I decided to cut my losses and rebook for next week, giving me the perfect window of opportunity to head to Thailand’s premier forest reserve, Kaeng Krachan National Park.

Covering nearly 3,000 square kilometers and directly adjoining large forested areas across the border in Myanmar, Kaeng Krachan is a very wild place that still harbours many of South-East Asia’s rarest mammals. Thailand’s forests often seem fairly sanitised these days, but Kaeng Krachan is the exception. It still feels dangerous …. the forests are bursting at the seams with poisonous snakes, and weird and wonderful insects, not to mention leopards, bears, a few tigers, and the most dangerous animal of them all – Asian Elephant – which lives in good numbers in the park. Elephants do occasionally kill people here, including a girl just last year, and for this reason wandering along the roads and trails at night is not allowed.

During my stay, an elephant visited the Ban Krang camping ground nightly, where it would wander past the tents and break the water pipe outside the toilet block so it could drink. Every morning the rangers had to replace the pipe. Behind the campsite restaurant, a giant Porcupine could almost always be seen after dark feasting on dinner scraps, sometimes alongside civets and even a jackal. Some other birders videoed a Leopard on the road at about Km 22, just an hour or so after I had driven along there. Not long ago, another visitor photographed a Tiger on the road not far from Ban Krang – and camera traps and the report of an occasional spine-tingling roar attest to its continued presence in the area. Dusky Langurs are abundant and easy to see, and I saw a pair of Stump-tailed Macaques at a waterhole, but I had to be content with only hearing the loud whooping cries of White-handed Gibbon each morning.

Needless to say, the whole area is incredibly rich in bird life, but as in most tropical broadleaved forests, birding can at times be a very frustrating experience, with some walks on the roads and trails producing almost nothing.

I put in three days of dawn to dusk effort in the park, regularly covering many different altitudes, locations and forest types, and finished with a respectable total of 114 bird species seen within the park gates. In addition to this figure, a number of species were “heard only” so not included in this total or my year list. Notable birds in the latter category included five owl species (including the rare White-fronted Scops Owl) and Banded Kingfisher.

The road up to Ban Krang.
The new smooth road up to Ban Krang.

Notes on the logistics of visiting Kaeng Krachan:

Excellent general information is available on Nick Upton’s website: http://www.thaibirding.com/locations/west/kk.htm

I took a big bus from Bangkok’s Sai Tai Mai (southern bus terminal) to Hua Hin. A ticket costs about 160 baht and the journey takes a little under three hours. There are also minibuses from Victory Monument in central Bangkok, which are more convenient for public transport connections and hotels in the city. However in my experience these vehicles are inevitably driven very recklessly, and the seats inside are very cramped – in my opinion they are best avoided.

Hua Hin is a good base as it is a tourist town with hundreds of hotels, and a good range of international and local car hire companies. It is best to book a car in advance, as they seem in demand at this location and some rental outlets didn’t have any available. I eventually found a Mazda2 that seemed to have quite good ground clearance for a small car (essential at Kaeng Krachan). The cost was 1,200 baht per day – you could probably shave a few hundred baht off the price by pre-booking.

Driving to Kaeng Krachan is by no means straightforward, as inland from the coast there is a maze of small roads, which although numbered often don’t have signs in English. Make sure you have the route thoroughly worked out before leaving Hua Hin. It’s about 70-80km from Hua Hin to the park headquarters, then another 20km from there to the park gates.

Fluctuating entrance fees are all part of the charm of visiting Thai national parks, and on arrival I noted that Kaeng Krachan has recently increased its entrance fee from 200 baht to 300 baht, plus 30 baht for the car. I stayed within the park for the entire time, so did not need to buy another ticket, but for people overnighting outside the park this fee is payable every day.

Camping at Ban Krang costs 30 baht per night for those with their own camping gear. Tents and bedding are available to rent for 200 baht per night all-in – including assembly by a ranger.

Small restaurants at Ban Krang and Panoenthung campsites serve basic Thai meals, but for birding on-the-go, it’s wise to bring plenty snacks and drinking water. Alcohol is officially prohibited, but I saw the rangers enjoying a beer one night so it seems laxly enforced here.

There are mixed reports about whether it is possible to take an ordinary car (not 4WD) up to Panoenthung. Emboldened by the tales of friends who took their Toyota Vios to the top just a couple of weeks ago, I went up there daily in my Mazda2 and found it not too bad at all. The track is extremely rough and rocky, and very steep in places, but ground clearance wasn’t a problem. Getting traction on the loose stones and gravel was a little tricky at times, but at least the road was dry ….  in the wet, it might be impossible to drive up some of the steeper sections in an ordinary car.

The lower sections of the road, below Ban Krang campsite, have recently been smoothly asphalted – it can only be a matter of time before an elephant is hit by a car driving too fast along here.

As a general observation, there has been a huge increase in visitor numbers and facilities since my first visit here in 2006. This is bound to have a detrimental effect on the wildlife in the long run, pushing shyer species deeper into the forest.

An enormous Black Giant Squirrel. This one was along the track between streams 2 and 3.
An enormous Black Giant Squirrel. This one was along the track between streams 2 and 3.

Birding areas and highlights:

Measured in kilometers from the park gates. Ban Krang campsite is at Km 15 and Panoenthung is at Km 30.

Km 9-10: an open area with scattered trees had breeding Black-thighed Falconets. A few hundred meters further on, a concrete bridge next to three small waterholes is a good place to wait and see what turns up. I saw an Asian Elephant here three times in one afternoon. Birding highlights were a pair of Great Slaty Woodpeckers on two days, on the second occasion very close to the road, a pair of Grey-headed Woodpeckers, Golden-crested Myna, Thick-billed Pigeon, Thick-billed Warbler (not on Nick Upton’s checklist for Kaeng Krachan), and Red Junglefowl coming to drink at the waterhole.

Km 10-15: the smooth road has almost no traffic, ideal for driving slowly along and stopping when a bird is seen or heard. Many Oriental Pied Hornbills and a pair of Hill Myna were my best birds here.

Km 15 (Ban Krang campsite): Personal highlight was a Heart-spotted Woodpecker beside the track about 200 meters past the campsite. Large-tailed Nightjar could be seen in the evening and common birds around the campsite fringes including Blue-eared Barbets at their nest hole.

Streams 1-3: a few kilometers past Ban Krang campsite, and at the weekend there were birders and photographers always along here. Potentially a huge number of species inhabit the wonderful primary forest in this area. I missed most of the key birds, but did see some good personal records including Laced Woodpecker, White-browed Piculet, Drongo Cuckoo, Little Cuckoo-Dove, Crow-billed Drongo, Great Hornbill and Silver-breasted Broadbill.

Km 22-23: halfway up to Panoenthung, the track levels out and follows a ridge. This is where Leopard has often been seen. Birdwise it was very good, with Kalij Pheasant, Raffles Malkoha and Dollarbird all showing for me here.

Km 27-28: a well-known area for Ratchet-tailed Treepie. I didn’t see one here, and also failed to find Rufous-browed Flycatcher in this area, but I did see nesting Long-tailed Broadbill, also Silver-breasted Broadbill, Collared Babbler, and Black-throated Laughingthrush.

Km 28-30: walking the trail all the way to Panoenthung produced Spot-necked Babbler and Red-headed Trogon.

Km 30: Panoenthung campsite produced views of lots of common birds, but the highlight was a pair of Ratchet-tailed Treepie perched in a tree early morning along the track to Panoenthung royal lodge.

Km 31-32: another good area and much less visited than the lower sections of road. Highlights here were Wreathed Hornbill, Sultan Tit, Rufous Woodpecker and Common Green Magpie.

Ratchet-tailed Treepie at Paneonthung - very poor record shot!
Ratchet-tailed Treepie at Paneonthung – a very poor record shot!

Birds seen at Kaeng Krachan:

  1. Red Junglefowl
  2. Kalij Pheasant
  3. Striated Heron
  4. Chinese Pond Heron
  5. Black Baza
  6. Oriental Honey Buzzard
  7. Crested Serpent Eagle
  8. Shikra
  9. Black-thighed Falconet
  10. White-breasted Waterhen
  11. Red-wattled Lapwing
  12. Spotted Dove
  13. Little Cuckoo-Dove
  14. Emerald Dove
  15. Thick-billed Green Pigeon
  16. Mountain Imperial Pigeon
  17. Vernal Hanging Parrot
  18. Greater Coucal
  19. Raffles Malkoha
  20. Green-billed Malkoha
  21. Drongo Cuckoo
  22. Large-tailed Nightjar
  23. Germain’s Swiftlet
  24. Asian Palm Swift
  25. Fork-tailed Swift
  26. Grey-rumped Treeswift
  27. Red-headed Trogon
  28. Dollarbird
  29. Black-capped Kingfisher
  30. Oriental Pied Hornbill
  31. Great Hornbill
  32. Wreathed Hornbill
  33. Great Barbet
  34. Green-eared Barbet
  35. Blue-eared Barbet
  36. Blue-throated Barbet
  37. White-browed Piculet
  38. Heart-spotted Woodpecker
  39. Greater Yellownape
  40. Laced Woodpecker
  41. Grey-headed Woodpecker
  42. Common Flameback
  43. Greater Flameback
  44. Rufous Woodpecker
  45. Great Slaty Woodpecker
  46. Silver-breasted Broadbill
  47. Long-tailed Broadbill
  48. Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrike
  49. Ashy Woodswallow
  50. Great Iora
  51. Black-winged Cuckooshrike
  52. Swinhoe’s Minivet
  53. Scarlet Minivet
  54. Brown Shrike
  55. Blyth’s Shrike-Babbler
  56. Black-naped Oriole
  57. Ashy Drongo
  58. Bronzed Drongo
  59. Crow-billed Drongo
  60. Hair-crested Drongo
  61. Greater Racket-tailed Drongo
  62. Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo
  63. Black-naped Monarch
  64. Asian Paradise-Flycatcher
  65. Common Green Magpie
  66. Ratchet-tailed Treepie
  67. Grey-headed Canary-Flycatcher
  68. Sultan Tit
  69. Black-headed Bulbul
  70. Black-crested Bulbul
  71. Stripe-throated Bulbul
  72. Flavescent Bulbul
  73. Streak-eared Bulbul
  74. Ochraceous Bulbul
  75. Grey-eyed Bulbul
  76. Barn Swallow
  77. Red-rumped/Striated Swallow
  78. Asian Stubtail
  79. Thick-billed Warbler
  80. Radde’s Warbler
  81. Yellow-browed Warbler
  82. Two-barred Warbler
  83. Pale-legged Leaf Warbler
  84. Eastern Crowned Warbler
  85. Sulphur-breasted Warbler
  86. Marten’s Warbler
  87. Alstrom’s Warbler
  88. Yellow-bellied Warbler
  89. Common Tailorbird
  90. White-browed Scimitar-Babbler
  91. Grey-throated Babbler
  92. Spot-necked Babbler
  93. Golden Babbler
  94. Pin-striped Tit-Babbler
  95. Collared Babbler
  96. Abbot’s Babbler
  97. Puff-throated Babbler
  98. Black-throated Laughingthrush
  99. Asian Fairy Bluebird
  100. Velvet-fronted Nuthatch
  101. Golden-crested Myna
  102. Hill Myna
  103. White-rumped Shama
  104. Dark-sided Flycatcher
  105. Asian Brown Flycatcher
  106. Taiga Flycatcher
  107. Hill Blue Flycatcher
  108. Blue-throated Flycatcher
  109. Blue-winged Leafbird
  110. Yellow-vented Flowerpecker
  111. Ruby-cheeked Sunbird
  112. Olive-backed Sunbird
  113. Black-throated Sunbird
  114. Grey Wagtail

Lifers: Alstrom’s Warbler, Spot-necked Babbler, Drongo Cuckoo, Kalij Pheasant, Ratchet-tailed Treepie, Crow-billed Drongo, White-browed Piculet (total 1,815).

2015 Year List Total: 472

Dusky Langur.
Dusky Langur
Black-thighed Falconets
Black-thighed Falconets
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