Champions of the Flyway!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Running up that hill - Doi Chiang Dao, Thailand

As mentioned previously, the reasons for staying at Malee's weren't just to kick back and let the birds come to us (although to be honest that would've done just fine), but also because of the ideal location, way up in the north-west near the Myanmar border. Being within striking distance of Doi Chiang Dao gave us the opportunity to try for a range of species we'd otherwise have no chance of, and also to enjoy a relatively unspoilt montane environment full of flora and fauna.

male and female Grey Bushchats

Our driver and his 4x4 arrived around 5 a.m., and under a brightly moonlit and starry sky we were on our way. Reaching the base of the mountain in the dark was a breeze, but then the drive (or, rather, scramble) up the unpaved, winding and precipitous track up the mountain was like a blacked-out, two-hour long fairground ride. We may not have shared any common language, but our driver was the consumate pro in very testing circumstances (and our personalised sign language saw us through with ease).

Bianchi's Warbler- thanks for calling

As we reached the higher section of the track, dawn began to spill meekly over the mountain, revealing a beautiful array of mixed woodland and high-elevation sub-tropical forest habitats. With first light came the first birds, and a quick succession of lifers - including Blue-throated Barbet, Slender-billed Orioles (a common bird throughout the day) and the main target species for many visiting birders, a Giant Nuthatch.

Grey-headed Parrotbill - gregarious, chatty, and as Amity pointed out, very cute indeed

Making our way to the very end of the track (occupied by a small electricity substation, a toilet block and a clearing in the woodland), several stops en route produced a very-low flying Mountain Hawk Eagle just above our heads, the first of the day's Mountain Imperial Pigeons, Ashy, Black, Lesser Racket-tailed and Greater Racket-tailed Drongos and Velvet-fronted Nuthatches and the first indications of just how common Yellow-browed Warblers were on the mountain.

Flavescent Bulbul

Arriving at the substation, our driver kicked back with the friendly occupants of the isolated dwelling, and we set off on what's known as the summit trail. In retrospect, a timing mistake, but it all worked out in the end....

Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher

But first, we had to negotiate the 'path' - actually a narrow trail cut into a sharp gradient, with a potentially unpleasant drop on the left-hand side; no doubt fairly easily navigated (albeit with care) when the path is clear, but nigh-on impossible if the towering, thick grass is left uncut, as it was for our visit. With this being our only opportunity, we battled through it anyway, picking up various bites, a couple of leeches, a particularly troublesome tick (deep in the armpit and discovered later), and an instant to-the-skin soaking from the heavy dew. (The camera survived just fine, but only due to the arms-above-the-head carrying technique.)

A demoralising half-hour or more steadily brightened in more ways than one, as the trail opened out into scattered pine forest with patches of bamboo and mixed scrub, the sun finally hit our drenched frames, the panorama stretched dramatically over the mountain tops, and birds began to entertain us from all sides.

Giant Nuthatch

Among the countless highlights over the next hour or so - at least three more Giant Nuthatches (closer and more accommodating this time), a White-tailed Leaf Warbler, several (superb) Grey Bushchats, a Chestnut-vented Nuthatch, a group of inquisitive Grey-headed Parrotbills, a pair of Short-billed Minivets, a Lesser Yellownape, and a Bianchi's Warbler, satisfyingly nailed on call (unlike most other Seicercus warblers during the period...).

Wedge-tailed Green Pigeons

For the remaining time on the mountain, we decided to slowly make our way back down, concentrating most efforts on the highest few hundred metres or so - regular stops for bird waves and wanders into the woodland and scrub provided plenty more highlights, even in the heat of the day.

Blue-throated Barbet

Of these, some of the more memorable species included several Blyth's Leaf Warblers, a Maroon Oriole, Flavescent Bulbuls, a couple of Rufescent Prinias, a White-throated Fantail, Pin-tailed & Wedge-tailed Green Pigeons, Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpeckers, and plenty of Phylloscopus warblers (in addition to the aforementioned White-tailed and Blyth's Leafs) -

Short-billed Minivet

Yellow-broweds were unavoidable (at least eighty through the day, perhaps many more), Eastern Crowned and Greenish numbered perhaps ten each overall, a single Arctic was picked out in a mixed species flock, and there were others that went unidentified (although I did manage record shots of several, which'll provide something to do over the coming grey days here in east London...).

Pin-tailed Green Pigeon

Slender-billed Orioles