Trip Report: Hala Bala, September 2nd-4th

Hala Bala research station, with the magnificent Rhinoceros Hornbill as its emblem - a bird that can readily be seen here with a little patience and luck.
Hala Bala research station, with the magnificent Rhinoceros Hornbill as its emblem – a bird that can readily be seen here with a little patience and luck.

Like most birders, I was unsure about whether to make the long journey to the Deep South, due to the ongoing civil war that has claimed more than 6,000 lives since 2004. The British government advises against all but essential travel to the area. Bombings and shootings occur on an almost daily basis, and while tourists are not targeted, the nature of the attacks is indiscriminate and it is possible to end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

On the other hand, Hala Bala wildlife sanctuary is in a remote area, far from the towns and villages where the majority of the attacks take place. Birders regularly visit in small numbers, and even the occasional commercial birding tour goes there. The long bird list for the sanctuary – including many species found nowhere else in Thailand – is more than tempting.

After reading around as much as I could online – and keeping in mind that the latest news stories may not be reported in the English language media – I decided to chance a visit. My first strategy was to be prepared. Before heading south from Hat Yai, I stocked up on food and water – enough for my 2.5 day stay in the park – and filled the fuel tank of my rental car. I wanted to be able to drive straight to Hala Bala without stopping, and remain within the park boundaries for the duration of my stay.

Directions: Hala Bala is about 280km from Hat Yai, and is relatively easily reached along the main coastal highway through Songkhla, Pattani, and Narathiwat provinces, with a journey time of just under 4 hours. From eastern Songkhla onwards, the region is under martial law. Military checkpoints are frequent, and armored vehicles and machine-gun toting troops are much in evidence. This might be expected to produce a rather menacing atmosphere, but people seem to go about their lives as normal and I never felt in any danger – indeed, the constant presence of troops is actually somewhat reassuring. Of course, the soldiers always raised their eyebrows in surprise as I rolled down the window at the checkpoints, as I suppose very few foreign tourists make their way down here.

The sat nav in my rental car already had “Hala Bala peat swamp research center” programmed in to it, which is inside the sanctuary, so all I had to do was follow the directions. For those without sat nav, the route is easy as far as the border town of Sungai Kolok, from where you should follow road 4057 to Waeng. Even the sat nav was confused in Waeng, but the town is not that big and eventually you should find yourself on the 4057 heading out of town towards the Buketa border checkpoint. Just before the border is a right turn to a village, take this road which becomes the 4062 and heads through several small villages before entering the wildlife sanctuary. It is only for the last few kilometers that Hala Bala wildlife sanctuary is actually signposted.

Orientation: The park HQ is in the first group of buildings you come across, up a steep track on the right (signposted “office” from the main road).

The research center is a few kilometers further ahead, on the left. There is a big sign with a picture of Rhinoceros Hornbills on it, and an entry checkpoint. A few hundred meters further on along the 4062, there is a turning on the left for Sirindhorn Waterfall (it is signposted).

The 4062 then continues through the wildlife sanctuary for about 12km, crossing three bridges along the way, and climbing to a high point before descending to another checkpoint which marks the western end of the Bala reserve.

Shortly after the western checkpoint, a driveway on the left goes through gates to a forest temple with some trails that sometimes produce good birds. A kilometer or so further on, road 4062 enters a village (called Ban Phu Khao Thong), with an intersection next to a playing field. Keep going straight, and there is a general store that sells cold beer on the left (this road eventually ends at the Malaysian border complete with manned gun tower). Take the right turn at the intersection, follow the road around to the left, and continue straight ahead at the next intersection. There is a school on the left, and a noodle soup stand on the right, where I had lunch every day. Ban Phu Khao Thong is very friendly, and I was greeted with great interest by the locals. It is a Thai Buddhist village, hence the availability of beer and “kuaytiaw moo”. As a general rule, the villages to the west of the sanctuary (this one and Ban Toh Moh a little further on) appear to be Buddhist, and the ones to the east along the road to Waeng are all Muslim.

The Toh Moh community forest, mentioned in some site guides, is reached by continuing past the school/noodle soup shop for about 5km, as far as the T-junction in Ban Toh Moh. Turn left here and follow the road to the end, where the trail begins. This forest is outside the protected area of the wildlife sanctuary but still an excellent birding spot.

My extremely basic accommodation in an empty building at Hala Bala wildlife sanctuary HQ.
My extremely basic accommodation in an empty building at Hala Bala wildlife sanctuary HQ.

Accommodation and food: I turned up with no advance notice, fully prepared to sleep in the car if necessary. On arrival, I went to the office, where the park director and his staff were very friendly, although communication was difficult as they spoke hardly any English and my Thai is absolutely minimal. I was informed that the usual way to stay at Hala Bala is to send an email a month in advance to their head office in Bangkok. Having not done this, it seemed at first that my chances were low of getting a roof over my head for the night at the sanctuary. However, after a lot of smiling and a little gentle negotiation, I was given permission to stay in an empty building in the park HQ grounds, and provided with a sleeping mat, pillow, blankets and a fan, in exchange for a “donation” of 100 baht per night. It seemed to help my case when I made it clear that I was a birder and not a photographer, I guess they may have had issues in the past with photographers wishing to stake out rare species in the sanctuary.

One of the unexpected rules stipulated by the director was that I was to have a park ranger with me at all times while birding. I didn’t like this rule, but agreed to it anyway. I had two rangers with me throughout the first morning and into the early part of the afternoon, which wasn’t too much of a hardship as they had birding optics and a field guide with them, and they were friendly and interested in birds although not especially knowledgeable. By halfway through the first afternoon, they evidently decided I was OK on my own and left me to my own devices, and they didn’t accompany me again after that.

I had enough food with me to last for the duration of my stay (bread, canned fish, fruit, nuts etc.), but I supplemented my diet at lunchtime with noodle soup from the shop in Ban Phu Khao Thong, as already mentioned. There are also some food options in the Muslim villages to the east of the sanctuary.

Birding: I found some fairly good information online; the main sites I used were Thai Birding, Phuket Birdwatching, and South Thailand Birding. North Thailand birding also had some trip reports with species lists.

The roadside is the main site for birding. Road 4062 runs through the sanctuary from east to west. This road has almost no traffic apart from the occasional park ranger or local on a motorbike (I saw less than one vehicle an hour on average). It is a single track road for most of its length, with vegetation brushing both sides of the car at several points; there are however fairly frequent places to park on the verge. The road is generally in reasonable shape, and while there are one or two rough parts it should still be passable with care in a non-4×4 car.

The two viewpoints mentioned in Thai Birding’s site guide no longer exist, and getting views across the forest canopy is more or less impossible, making it presumably quite a bit trickier to see Hornbills than it used to be. The only place I had a good open view of the forest was along a short section a couple of kilometers west of the research center where the road is banked with concrete; there were almost no opportunities after this, which was particularly frustrating near the high point of the road where I heard Helmeted Hornbill daily but had almost no chance of seeing it.

Bird activity seemed especially high along the ridge just east of the highest point of the road, and on the downhill stretch west of there as far as the third bridge, even in the afternoons when bird waves were commonly encountered.

The high levels of action on the road contrasted with very quiet birding within the forest. I spent some time on the short nature trail in the lower section of the research center, where there were a fair amount of leeches and not a lot of birds. I didn’t wade across the river to the “long” leech trail, I will save this for another visit at a better time of year when forest birds are more active and vocal, and when I have a pair of leech socks with me!

The Toh Moh community forest offers a nice easy trail through good habitat, alongside a stream which should offer the chance of forest kingfishers. Birding was good during my visit here for the first couple of hours of daylight, before suddenly going quiet.

I went out a couple of times at night with my spotlight, just around the park HQ area, and heard no night birds whatsoever. I’m assuming that other times of year would be more productive for this, as Blyth’s/Javan Frogmouth is supposedly abundant in the area and many species of owl occur.

The weather wasn’t bad, with mostly dry and hot days, and some rain in the late afternoons and overnight. Mornings often started gloomy and misty, which hampered birding especially in the closed forest.

My overall feeling was that while the birding was very good, I felt the species diversity was a little lower than I had been expecting, and I couldn’t help but feel that I would have seen and heard more at a different time of the year. But for a first visit it was very good and I will definitely be coming back as soon as the opportunity allows.

The sun burning off the early morning mist, alongside the river at the research center.
The sun burning off the early morning mist, alongside the river at the research center.

Bird highlights by locality:

Park HQ: Apart from sleeping here, I spent very little time here but did see a Black-and-yellow Broadbill early one morning.

Research center (lower part): Crested Jay, Black-and-red Broadbill, Sultan Tit.

Sirinthorn Waterfall and road junction: Yellow-crowned Barbet, Scaly-breasted Bulbul, Chestnut-naped Forktail, Grey-headed Babbler, Black-bellied Malkoha.

Viewing area by concrete embankment: Great Hornbill, Rhinoceros Hornbill, Brown-backed Needletail.

Bridge 2: Blue-banded Kingfisher, Blue-crowned Hanging Parrot.

Forest along ridge near highest point of road: Crimson-winged Woodpecker, Checker-throated Woodpecker, Pale Blue Flycatcher, Everett’s White-eye.

Road from the highest point down to bridge 3: Chestnut-backed Scimitar-Babbler, Buff-rumped Woodpecker, Violet Cuckoo.

Temple trails: Short-tailed Babbler, Purple-naped Sunbird, Gold-whiskered Barbet.

Toh Moh community forest: Rufous-winged Philentoma, Scarlet-rumped Trogon, Buff-necked Woodpecker, Rufous Piculet, Black-capped Babbler, Scaly-crowned Babbler.

Full bird list (96 species seen in total, no heard-only birds included on list, and open country species seen outside sanctuary area not included):

  1. Crested Serpent Eagle
  2. Emerald Dove
  3. Violet Cuckoo
  4. Black-bellied Malkoha
  5. Raffle’s Malkoha
  6. Chestnut-breasted Malkoha
  7. Greater Coucal
  8. Silver-rumped Needletail
  9. Brown-backed Needletail
  10. Glossy Swiftlet
  11. Germain’s Swiftlet
  12. Grey-rumped Treeswift
  13. Whiskered Treeswift
  14. Great Hornbill
  15. Rhinoceros Hornbill
  16. Blue-banded Kingfisher
  17. White-throated Kingfisher
  18. Red-bearded Bee Eater
  19. Chestnut-headed Bee Eater
  20. Scarlet-rumped Trogon
  21. Red-throated Barbet
  22. Blue-eared Barbet
  23. Gold-whiskered Barbet
  24. Yellow-crowned Barbet
  25. Crimson-winged Woodpecker
  26. Checker-throated Woodpecker
  27. Buff-rumped Woodpecker
  28. Buff-necked Woodpecker
  29. Rufous Piculet
  30. Blue-crowned Hanging Parrot
  31. Black-and-yellow Broadbill
  32. Black-and-red Broadbill
  33. Large Woodshrike
  34. Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike
  35. Rufous-winged Philentoma
  36. Green Iora
  37. Great Iora
  38. Scarlet Minivet
  39. Lesser Cuckooshrike
  40. White-bellied Erpornis
  41. Dark-throated Oriole
  42. Greater Racket-tailed Drongo
  43. Black-naped Monarch
  44. Crested Jay
  45. Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher
  46. Sultan Tit
  47. Velvet-fronted Nuthatch
  48. Black-headed Bulbul
  49. Black-crested Bulbul
  50. Scaly-breasted Bulbul
  51. Stripe-throated Bulbul
  52. Cream-vented Bulbul
  53. Yellow-bellied Bulbul
  54. Red-eyed Bulbul
  55. Spectacled Bulbul
  56. Hairy-backed Bulbul
  57. Ochraceous Bulbul
  58. Buff-vented Bulbul
  59. Cinereous Bulbul
  60. Yellow-bellied Warbler
  61. Common Tailorbird
  62. Dark-necked Tailorbird
  63. Rufous-tailed Tailorbird
  64. Rufescent Prinia
  65. Yellow-bellied Prinia
  66. Everett’s White-eye
  67. Pin-striped Tit-Babbler
  68. Chestnut-winged Babbler
  69. Rufous-fronted Babbler
  70. Chestnut-backed Scimitar-Babbler
  71. Grey-headed Babbler
  72. Moustached Babbler
  73. Scaly-crowned Babbler
  74. Puff-throated Babbler
  75. Short-tailed Babbler
  76. Black-capped Babbler
  77. Brown Fulvetta
  78. Asian Fairy Bluebird
  79. Oriental Magpie Robin
  80. Pale Blue Flycatcher
  81. Verditer Flycatcher
  82. Chestnut-naped Forktail
  83. Greater Green Leafbird
  84. Lesser Green Leafbird
  85. Blue-winged Leafbird
  86. Yellow-breasted Flowerpecker
  87. Crimson-breasted Flowerpecker
  88. Orange-bellied Flowerpecker
  89. Ruby-cheeked Sunbird
  90. Plain Sunbird
  91. Brown-throated Sunbird
  92. Purple-naped Sunbird
  93. Little Spiderhunter
  94. Grey-breasted Spiderhunter
  95. Grey Wagtail
  96. White-rumped Munia
A damp and misty late afternoon at park HQ.
A damp and misty late afternoon at park HQ.
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