Thursday, January 4, 2018

From Laya to Leech Socks: The Highs and Lows of an Asia Adventure, Act IX

For earlier entries on my Asia adventure, 
click on the Bhutan & Thailand tab above

Act IX: Choosing Pangolins Over Palaces
(Birding in Thailand #3)

Any Bangkok guidebook or tourist web page lists the Thai King's Grand Palace as the "#1 must-see." You have one day in the city? Grand Palace. Two or more days? Then see Grand Palace, Thing 1, and Thing 2. Me, visiting Thailand for the first time? No Grand Palace for me.

What I didn't see
Image grabbed from here
My time in Thailand was arranged to see birds, not palaces. I was solidly seeking birds from 5 a.m. my very first day in Thailand until I was dropped off at the airport the evening of Day 8, my last day in Asia.

It'd be tough to top my first day of birding Thailand. From spoon-billed sandpipers and meeting bird and nature artist Kamol Kamolphalin to boating in Bangkok Bay with Mr. Deang, Day 1 was chock full of neat stuff. I had 7 days left, and had visions of colorful birds, national parks, and maybe even wild elephants dancing in my eyes. What was the rest of the trip going to be like?

Happiness is birding
On Day 2, my guide Nick and I made our way to the privately-owned Baan Maka Nature Lodge with cabins and other amenities nestled in the forest outside of Kaeng Krachan National Park. This was going to be our overnight home for the next three days.

Example of cabin/rooms at Baan Maka
Example of a room in their cabins, looked very much like mine

A very pleasant outdoor, shaded dining patio
 After getting settled into each of our comfortable rooms and having lunch in their outdoor dining patio, we set up our general schedule. Leave before daylight and bird until lunch. Back to the lodge for lunch and some down-time during the heat of the day (nap? read? more birding on the lodge grounds?), then head out for some afternoon jaunt to bird some other area until dark. Then back to our lodge for the evening dinner, complete our daily bird checklist, and get some sleep. Rinse and repeat.

Part of the grounds at Baan Maka; makes for good birding too!
Entrance to Kaeng Krachan National Park
Each trip into the park had a different focus. Nick planned it all to capitalize on the variety of elevations and typical bird activity. We'd get to the lower, hotter forests at first light, when still cool, moving to higher elevation forests as the morning warmed up. Our afternoon jaunts would find us exploring higher elevations until dusk, where we'd then visit certain night-time roosting spots Nick knew about to catch birds coming to their nightly tree cavities or nests. We'd be one of the last cars remaining in the park as we made our way out in the enveloping darkness, back to our lodging.

Nick and I had many chances to chat as we were driving about. I knew Nick was British, but how'd he land in Thailand? After touring much of the world after college (birding while doing so), Thailand seemed to be a good fit, so he put down roots. Over 20 years of birding and guiding birders in Thailand, he continues to expand his guiding services to several other east-Asia countries. He also speaks what I would consider fluent Thai (seemed like it to me!). His website,, is one of the foremost information sources on birding Thailand; my internet searching would lead me to various sites which would all point back to his.

Nick's website, filled with information
Being that he's crawled all over this part of Thailand, Nick had a list of spots to check -- heck, even individual TREES -- throughout the trip. See, this is what you get from a professional guide that I simply couldn't know about on my own. How would I know to go to Place A during the morning, but not the afternoon? Or that this one watering hole is better in the afternoon than it is in the morning? Or I'd see some non-bird creature -- a butterfly, a lizard, a monkey, some deer-looking hooved beast, or even a crab -- that Nick would identify and give me its general natural history rundown. It was invaluable to have Nick be able to add various pieces of the puzzle that created my experience of Thailand.

Dusky Langur


One of our first lunchtime "siestas," Nick had retired to his room as I stuck around the dining patio. The property had a bird-feeding station placed nearby; a platformed buffet of seeds, nuts, and fruit. Even tree shrews found it irresistible.

I enjoyed one of my first hornbill sightings here; the Pied Hornbill:

Orange-bellied Flowerpecker photobombed by a butterfly
Our daily ventures were always interesting. Even if the midday warm temperatures silenced many birds, we would find other things of interest: butterflies, elephant poo on park roads, or pig-tailed macaques hanging out at roadside stops waiting for an opening to nab some snacks from unsuspecting humans.

A butterfly hotspot

Elephant droppings that were NOT there the day before

Sign crunched by an elephant scratching an itch?

Pig-tailed Macaques checking things out 
Nick also had some very birdy spots outside the park we'd visit, particularly Baan Song Nok (translation: A home to spot birds, which it is!), a property owned by retired art teacher Auntie Aek. A very nice background on her and this property can be found here. She developed her land into a birder's attraction by adding man-made ponds and viewing blinds (or you could sit comfortably in a shaded patio, watch television monitors showing those same springs in real time, and sprint up to the blinds when something rare is spotted). One afternoon was spent sitting in the blind, enjoying the various birds (and those cute tree shrews!) stopping by for a drink.

Hours spent in this blind, waiting...waiting...

Our view from inside the blind
Black-naped Monarch, photo credit Nick Upton

Male Tickell's Blue Flycatcher, photo credit Nick Upton

Black-crested Bulbul, photo credit Nick Upton dusk, when we were about to give up, the long-awaited
Slaty-legged Crake showed up. Cheers!
Photo credit Nick Upton
All of the above bird photos were taken on our visit by Nick Upton, with even more found here. Here are a few of mine from the viewing blind at Ban Song Nok:

Red Junglefowl, looking suspiciously like chickens but aren't

Another rascally Tree Shrew

Spotted Dove
One day of birding in a foreign country feels like 5 days of normal life, only without the equivalent sleep. It's GO-GO-GO (keeping all your senses sharp, because: birds) interspersed with downtime (minutes go by with no birds in sight) that leads to lethargy; and then BOOM, there's a bird! Wake up and go-go-go again. Your brain goes into overdrive trying to remember bird names and identification tips. Plus, being in a place with overwhelming new sights and sounds? The combination is both mentally exhausting and spiritually exhilarating. You're battling with yourself as you try to stay on point constantly while hoping for the chance to close your eyes for five seconds (and risk breaking the Rule for Serious Birders: Stay Awake Or Be Sorry).

On the second night of our park visit, we were driving towards the park exit at dusk after a particularly slow afternoon of birding (we had spent much of our afternoon taking close-up photos of butterflies and flowers since all birds seemed to have disappeared). As darkness fell, I momentarily forgot the Rule. I tucked away my binoculars and camera, thinking the day was done. A birder's biggest sin. I let the feeling of riding on twisty roads in the dark hypnotize me. True to birding karma, I was unprepared for what happened next.

Reflective glints from a pair of eyes low down in a bush appeared on the side of the road. "That's probably a cervet or some small critter," Nick said, slowing down as those eyes with a peculiar body attached to them started to walk onto the road. I slowly started waking up from my hypnotic state. It wasn't a bird, but second-best: some other non-bird critter.

In the next nanosecond, Nick slammed on the brakes and shouted "$&!#!!!!! It's a PANGOLIN!!!" Grabbing his camera, he jumped out and started clicking away. I knew three things immediately: 1) whatever this pangolin thing is would only be visible in our headlights for about 5 seconds until it vanished; 2) I had put my binoculars and camera away, and I'd waste the entire 5-second pangolin display fumbling around to get them up and ready; which led to 3) I needed to just watch, enjoy, and absorb what I was about to see. So I did.

Here's an image I grabbed from Google of what I would consider the closest representation of what I saw:

Similar to what we saw. Why did the pangolin cross the road?
The pangolin stepped out into the headlight's glow. This curious creature had the hump-bodied shape of an anteater covered with what looked like a armor of armadillo-type scales (they are, actually, also called "scaly anteaters," and at times referred to as "walking artichokes"). It shuffled carefully across the road and vanished into the dark forest on the other side. I had never seen anything quite like it. Taking a few seconds to gather what had happened and picking my jaw up from the floor, I looked at Nick, who was standing outside his car door. He was almost as open-mouthed as I was.

Curling up for sleep or protection, image source
Nick got back into the car, his excitement bubbling over. Turns out that in the 20-plus years he's thrashed around the jungles of Thailand and southeast Asia, this was his first pangolin. That immediately made me understand the rarity of what we witnessed. I was also very happy that this birding trip, which really didn't offer Nick expectations of anything new and different for him, ended up giving him a truly memorable experience.

The bummer was Nick's camera had been set on macro from our afternoon's butterfly photography; his settings were opposite for what was needed to catch a moving animal illuminated only by headlights. Thrilled about the sighting nonetheless, we went back to our lodge cabins with memories, not photographs. And that's OK.

From that point on, I made a point to pick up whatever information I could about pangolins, and it's a sobering picture.

There are eight species of pangolins in the world, inhabiting Africa and Asia. The "health, virility, and aphrodisiac benefits" myth that many of us are familiar with regarding rhino horns, elephant tusks, tiger penises, and bear gall bladders persisting in some cultures extends to pangolins as well.

It's far too soul-crushing to wrack your brains trying to understand why, why, WHY, WHY is this still a THING in the 21st century?

Being a generally slow-moving animal, they are fairly easy to poach. Not being a charismatic critter in the limelight raising funds and awareness like elephants, tigers, and rhinos, conservation and protection efforts can't keep up with the devastation this poaching is doing to these animals.

Adult and young pangolin
Pangolins are the most illegally-trafficked mammal in the world today. Their plight is being noticed more as this crisis deepens, but efforts and funds are, sadly, lacking to combat their precipitous decline. There is an annual World Pangolin Day (this year: February 17, 2018) which helps bring recognition to these unique animals and their plight. Some of the conservation or protection organizations for pangolins are Pangolin Conservation, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)'s Pangolin Specialist Group, and WildAid. A CNN article from 2014 has some good information as well.

World Pangolin Day, February 17, 2018
Find more information at

Nick and I spent the first half of my Thailand birding trip thoroughly enjoying Bangkok Bay north through Kaeng Krachen National Park. Certain targets such as Great Hornbills and wild elephants eluded us, but that would leave me with a few desirable treasures to seek out on the final leg of my Thailand birding journey. I was now going to be put under the wings of two of Nick's subguides, Ralph and his wife Nit, who would guide me on the final 3-4 days as we explored Khao Yai National Park, northeast of Bangkok.

Funny thing. The sheer number and observations of birds on this trip was astounding and beyond my wildest expectations. But when I think about that portion of my trip, it's the pangolin I remember first. I will likely never see another pangolin in my life, and I'm glad the path I chose to explore Thailand was the one that allowed me to see a pangolin, not a palace.

Pangolin with young. Source
Additional photos from my days with Nick:

Kaeng Krachan National Park

Orange-breasted Trogon

White-handed gibbon

Sambar deer (musk gland on upper chest apparent)

Blue-throated bee-eater

More Kaeng Krachan National Park

Chestnut-headed bee-eaters

Common Flameback

Pied Hornbill (again)

Stay tuned for the last installment of my "From Laya to Leech Socks" Asia Adventure, where leech socks FINALLY make their appearance!

Update Jan. 20, 2018: A Thai wildlife trafficking kingpin has been arrested; pangolins were one of several Asian and African wildlife species that were poached and sold through his network. Here's an NPR story about it.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

From Laya to Leech Socks: The Highs and Lows of an Asia Adventure, Act VIII

For previous entries, please see 
the Bhutan & Thailand tab above

Act VIII: A Man and His Bird
(Birding in Thailand #2)

Choose your corner, pick away at it carefully, intensely, and to the best of your ability, and that way, you might change the world ~~Charles Eames

Driving away from Pak Thale, my birding guide Nick set the air conditioning to high, and my body temperature started to cool and normalize. We drove through what I figured was fairly typical Thai countryside: bits of jungle interspersed with agriculture fields, homes, small communities, and wetlands, peppered with people and livestock and cars, all synchronized to the beat of this landscape.

Thailand countryside around Bangkok
We were off to see Mr. Deang. "Who's that and why?" I asked Nick. I didn't bother to ask where we were or where we were going, as I was completely locationally-discombobulated and I figured the response would be wasted on me. But the way Nick said "Mr. Deang," with no small amount of respect in his voice, got me intrigued.

Nick informed me that this first afternoon's venture in my eight days of birding Thailand was to locate the Malaysian Plover. Mr. Deang is, essentially, the secret sauce for finding this bird, and to Mr. Deang's we must go first.

But before we do, let's look at the plover family as a whole. There are a number of different species of plovers all around the world. With shorter bills than most sandpipers or other shorebirds, plovers forage for their meals (worms, insects, small invertebrates) via sight, not by "probing" into the water and muck that we often see other shorebirds do with their long, narrow bills. So they're among the shorebirds that tend to "run-and-grab" to feed. This winter-plumage Pacific Golden Plover exemplifies general plover characteristics.

Photo: Nick Upton, Pacific Golden Plover
Plovers tend to create rather vulnerable nests. Most plover species scratch aside a little bit of sand, dirt, or gravel within a larger expanse of sand, dirt, or gravel, and lay their eggs in the tiny little dip, or "scrape," they've made. And that's it. Out in the open. An uncooked omelet just waiting for the right raccoon, cat-on-the-loose, fox, snake, hawk, rat, geez, you name it, to belly up to the bar.

Look for it. Lower third of photo. That's a plover (species: Killdeer) "nest."
Location: parking lot at our White Mountain Nature Center.
Guarded by local school children and members!
Look at our (North American) Killdeer. Many readers in the U.S. may know this common bird, which is a member of the plover family often found in wet areas on golf courses, stubble fields, and the like. If you don't know this bird by name, you may have heard instead how this bird fakes having a broken wing in order to draw predators away from its nest ("Look at ME! Take ME! Attack ME instead!! Oh, here you come; I guess it's time to fly away, hah hah!").

Killdeer displaying its "broken wing" diversion tactic;
Photo credit Eric Rosenberg
The Malaysian Plover is very similar. Here's a photo of a Malaysian Plover nest:

Photo credit
Risky, no? Malaysian Plovers, though, have an ally. Mr. Deang.

Mr. Deang is a fisherman-turned-fisherman-guide, turned birding-guide, turned plover-curious, turned plover-nest-guard, turned plover-advocate, turned plover-saver. He is a guy with a boat who took fishermen out in Laem Pak Bia ("Lairm Pug Beer" according to Nick's website), where there happens to be this spit of beach that contains a nesting area of quite rare Malaysian Plovers. Birders started hiring Mr. Deang to take them to this spit. I suspect that during the season these plovers are present, Mr. Deang does more business with birders than with fishermen.

Mr. Deang, left, helping protect nest sites
Photo credit
This turn in business may have left any other boat owner happy with the additional income generated. But not Mr. Deang. Observation of the bird to be a better guide led to an interest and passion for the well-being of this bird, which led to action. Mr. Deang leads efforts to establish protected zones around nest areas; polices the area for invading predators and trespassing humans; and, in general, advocates for the conservation and care of this species. I daresay the Malaysian Plover would be worse off if it weren't for Mr. Deang.

We pulled into a signed driveway and parked in front of Mr. Deang's home and boat dock. A roofed shelter gave birders and other clients a shaded waiting area. This shelter had several shelves stocked with books: books on birds, books specific to shorebirds, books on ecology and conservation, wildlife books, you name it. Information galore was available for all visitors in this little hut on the side of a bay in the middle of a jungle.

Nick, me, and Mr. Deang
Mr. Deang greeted us with a smile, and indicated there were two other people we were waiting on before we could head out to the Malaysian Plover beach spit: two public-relations specialists, contracted through the Thai government to create a short video on rural Thai tourist attractions to help spur economic growth in these small communities. They had heard about "this guy who takes foreign birdwatchers, whatever those are, out to see a bird" and wanted to see and video this very spectacle. People paying someone to go out on a boat to see a bird? If they can get other locals to grab onto the ecotourism hook with their video, well, why not.

Pretty soon, these two young ladies pulled into the parking area and popped out of their car. Walking towards us, they greeted us excitedly, Iphones in hand, dressed sparkling clean in business casual. To my 54-year old hot, wilted, sweaty self, they looked like they were maybe 16 years old and a different species; one that stays cool and fresh in excess heat and humidity. Smart, smiling Thai ladies who happen to have a sharp eye and keen sense of what makes a good video. They showed us some of their work on their Iphones; they knew what they were doing.

One was carrying -- I kid you not -- a plastic grocery bag of ice and Coca-Cola, sipping it through a straw sticking out from the tied handles. I stared at it, too mesmerized to take a photo. A bag of liquid. How does she put it down without spilling the contents? How does one maneuver through daily life holding a bag of ice and Coke? Who sells Coke in a bag? In a cheap, plastic grocery bag miraculously without holes in the bottom? Where does one find flimsy grocery bags with no holes? I had so many questions; alas, I don't speak Thai, and she did not speak English. Plus, she was focused on her purpose for being there, not on why Coke comes in a bag.

New friend Ji, Public relations videographer extraordinaire
and sipper of Coke in a bag
Prior to loading ourselves into the boat, they wanted video interviews with both Mr. Deang and Nick. Speaking fluent Thai, Nick tried to explain what a birder was (with the occasional nod in my direction, as I continued to stare incredulously at a bag of Coke, now parked on a stool and not spilling over, what...the...), and why one would go to the expense and hassle to get themselves not just to Thailand but out to this very special hut on a bay to meet and travel with this Mr. Deang person to see this little bird on a shadeless, brutally hot beach.

He did well. Mr. Deang's interview, I'm guessing, exposed them to this gentle soul who can talk about the Malaysian Plover like no one else can.

Forcing myself to get over the Coke in a bag concept, I did a bit of birding in the mangroves around the hut while the interviews wrapped up.

Oriental Magpie Robin
We headed down to the dock to Mr. Deang's boat, where we met his cats, clamoring to climb aboard with the rest of us. Zoiks! Cats wanting to get on a boat!

Milling around as we loaded up...

...and then staring pointedly as we pushed off. Unnerving!
Shooing them away, we took off, gliding down a canal-like stretch of the bay, trees hugging both sides. I was thankful the boat had a canopy that provided a nugget of shade.

Obviously, not our boat since I was in it taking this picture, but similar to ours

Starting out...

...with birds to see along the way, of course!
After awhile, the bay opened up. A haze merged water and sky at the horizon, making a bluish-gray canvas that was broken only by small fishing boats. 

Arriving at the spit, we landed on the hot sand, walked to a vantage point, and set up shop:

Where are the little buggers?

Many shorebirds, but no Malaysian plovers yet!

Found 'em!

Malaysian Plover; Nick's photo from his blog
I'm about ready to pass out from the heat. Ji's dancing. 
After about a half-hour of standing on this hot beach, I made my way back to the only-slightly-less-oppressing shade of the boat's canopy and waited for everyone else. I looked towards the far, flat horizon where sea met sky, living in the moment and realizing it (always a very cool feeling). I contemplated where I was, what I was doing, and who I was with--halfway across the world from my home, birding with four people I had never met until that very day.

Observing Mr. Deang, I marveled at how people can develop a passion for something and let it grow until it becomes life-changing. You don't need equipment, money, or education -- all you need to do is open your eyes and your heart, letting curiosity kick off the rest. Thank you, Mr. Deang, for all that you do for the Malaysian Plover, and for reminding me that passion is the key to making a difference and changing the world.

Photo: Nick Upton, found here

Thanks, Ji, for sending me some of your great images!

Next up, visiting a Thai national park, where both newbie me, and veteran visitor Nick, see something we've never seen before!