Saturday, August 19, 2017

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

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

Act VII: To Bird or Not To Bird:
There Is No Question: Bird
(Birding in Thailand #1)

Eat. Drink. Walk. Run. Bird. Which one of those words don't belong with the rest?

My answer? Run. I partake in all the others, but I sure don't run. Did you pick "bird" thinking it was the only noun? Silly you.

See, there are birdwatchers, and there are birders. And, of course, there are the poor souls who do neither. What's the difference, you ask? Well, poor souls live not knowing what they are missing. Birdwatchers watch birds. Birders bird.

Imagine this scenario: Birdwatcher Sam, Birder Diane, and two Normal People, let's call them Norm and Cliff, spend most of their day on a walk on a beach, oh, let's put them somewhere in Thailand. Exhausted, thirsty, and with a desperate desire for a cold beer, they stop at a beach-side bar named Cheerful's and await service from pregnant, sarcastic waitress Carla. They see, at the exact same moment, Carla taking her time approaching, and a Spoon-billed Sandpiper zipping down the beach. Norm and Cliff greet the waitress and place their order. Sam fumbles around into his daypack, unzipping it to pull out his binoculars, while mumbling "Damn, I should've had these ready. I'll have a cold one, too..." Diane, meanwhile, has vaporized into a cloud of sand down the beach, binoculars, field guide, and camera in hand because they never left those hands. Carla shrugs and walks off to get three beers.

Birding in Maine, 2001
Birdwatching in Montana, ca. 1997
What Norm and Cliff know is that their beer is on the way. What Sam knows is that his beer is on the way too, and that the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, this little white and speckled bird with an unusual bill that ends in a spoon-like paddle, is one incredibly rare bird. He trots off to get a better look. What Diane knows is that the Spoon-billed Sandpiper is not only rare, but also that where she is now is the best place and time to see this bird on the entire PLANET. She also knows that people -- well, birders -- travel to this place, at this time, from all over the world to catch a glimpse of this bird. And some do, while some miss out. She also knows that with this sighting, she will be able to tick off one of the specialty birds on the list of Thailand -- and Asia, heck, even the world, for that matter -- birds to add to her "life list," the accumulated tally of a birder's suite of bird species seen in their life. Thailand was a vacation for Norm and Cliff. Sam came for the vacation and "to watch birds." Diane came to BIRD. She came prepared, was prepared, and is always prepared to seek out, and find, birds.

Yup, that's me standing up in the back seat of a 1950 Land Rover. Birding, Tanzania, 1982
Birdwatcher v. birder. Get it now? I fall around 100% on the birdwatcher scale, and around 50% on the birder scale. I probably would've vaporized down the beach like Diane while shouting "I'll take a margarita...on the rocks, with salt!" to Carla.

Me. Full-on birdwatcher, partial birder, Amazon River 2014
So, when the opportunity of a Bhutan journey came along, I turned to Google. Tap-tap-tap on the keyboard. I had never touched my little toe on the Asian continent. What's that you say, oh wise Google? Thailand has 10% of the world's bird species? And we fly in and out of Bangkok? Hmmmm...could I possibly extend my trip a bit and do some birding in Thailand?

Who would NOT want to see these birds?
Image from gift shop card, artist Kamol Komolphalin
My internet search "Thailand Birding Guide" led me to and Nick Upton, a British birder living in Thailand for the past two-plus decades and a professional guide. As it turns out, he and two of his guides were available the week after my Bhutan journey. Nick was sure to mention this was NOT the most productive time of year for birding (hence his availability; mid-November was apparently not the time when 100% birders would be here); certain top-level, high-interest birds simply would be near impossible to spot. But, for the Asia-birding neophyte like me, there's still the possibility of seeing 200+ species, possibly more, including the delightful Spoon-billed Sandpiper. I'm set!

Birdwatching, Bhutan 2016
We settled on an 8-day trip. Nick would pick me up at my hotel in Bangkok at 5 a.m. the morning after arriving from Bhutan. The plan: the first few days with Nick, we'd visit the Gulf of Thailand where salt and fresh water mingle, divided by berms into shallow, muddy ponds and shrimp farms; then we'd visit coastal beaches, agricultural fields, and other habitats. My time with Nick would culminate with three days exploring Kaeng Krachan National Park, a tropical rainforest chock full o'birds. We'd then head back to Bangkok where I'd be dropped off at the same hotel and picked up the next morning by Nick's sub-guides Ralph (another Brit) and his wife Nit (Thai native). Off we'd go in a different direction, birding in another tropical rainforest national park (Khao Yai) and various spots along the way, winding up at the Bangkok airport the evening I get on the flight home. Pretty much most of my time in Thailand would be spent birding. Let's do it!

Birding, Thailand, 2016
Our Bhutan group arrived in Bangkok late afternoon, stuffed to the gills with good memories of a fantastic trip, tired, and pretty much ready to go home. Most of the troupe had about 24 hours layover before getting on a 9 p.m. flight back to the states (Norris and Eric, like me, extended their trip, but for a side venture to Cambodia's Angkor Wat). That left me with about ten hours before my birding adventure would start. I had to laugh at myself for thinking I'd be fresh and ready for eight solid days of birding after nearly two weeks in the Himalaya when I planned this trip six months prior. What the heck, though. You only go around once. Now it was time to get some sleep!

As shown in my Bhutan entries, the Hotel Mariya in Bangkok,
a sweet and comfortable place
I was the only person in the quiet hotel lobby at 4:45 the next morning. Looking out the window as sunrise woke up the bustling city of Bangkok, I sipped Nescafe and munched on a granola bar. Headlights from an approaching mid-sized truck shone through the glass window. Could that be Nick? I peered through the window, lifting my binoculars off my neck and waving them questioningly. He nodded, got out of his truck, and came into the lobby. Introducing himself, we sat down for a bit while I finished my coffee, and he went through the day's schedule.

Little did I know that this image of my first approach to Bangkok was the very
place where we'd find our Spoon-billed Sandpiper
First things first. Get that Spoon-billed. We'd first drive to Pak Thale, the nearby complex of saltpans, shrimp farms, and mudflats in the Gulf of Thailand, and search through hundreds of thousands of wading shorebirds for the few Spoon-billeds that hang out there. Species of sandpipers, plovers, greenshanks, storks, gulls, and more will also be identified. We hoped to get the Spoon-billed right away before the heat and humidity of the day sets in and makes that area unbearable. Then, Nick said, we'd be off to see Mr. Deang. OK, I said (thinking hmmm...Mr. Deang. Who dat?). Let's go, he said, hauling my bags out to the truck; we need to beat the Bangkok traffic.

Outside of bustling Bangkok, sometimes traffic has legs 
Just a building in the Thai countryside.
In earlier entries about my Bhutan journey, I think I touched upon how I prefer not being cold. Quite certain I made that point. In Thailand now, post-Bhutan, I was actually looking forward to being hot. I couldn't wait to relish the sun and heat. As we approached the brackish mudflats and shrimp farms, I was indeed smiling at the thought of basking in the sun's glow. Holy crap, that lasted about 10 seconds. It was HOT. The kind of sticky hot gnats and flies love. The kind of hot that melts lead. I made a mental note to never let my Bhutan travel companions know I only lasted about 20 minutes in the searing heat before I wished I was...yes, just say it...colder. I found out later, on their day trip to Bangkok's Grand Palace, in the midst of them wilting in the heat, they would all wonder if I was finally happy. Oh, the irony; if only they knew the heat was just as shocking to me as it was to them.

Nick had scoped out this area the day before to look for the Spoon-billed, and had found four of them in one particular pond. He drove straight there with me, and we were fortunate to find two of them pretty much right away. Excellent views, as well. "So this is a bird of interest to birders, eh?" I naively asked. "Uh, you could say that," said Nick, respectful and kind. I hadn't realized the rarity of this bird, its associated conservation efforts due to that rarity, and how desirable it was for birders to see it. From the Audubon Society:

Last year there were only 100 pairs left, and maybe 100 juveniles. The annual drop of breeding-age adults has been a heart-stopping 26 percent, with extinction looming in as little as five years—a result, experts believe, of hunting and trapping on the wintering grounds.

Image from BSCP, Bangladesh Spoon-billed Sandpiper Conservation Project
BSCP's Facebook Page
This is one rare bird. Out of the scads of shorebirds we were seeing, we only saw two Spoon-billed Sandpipers. But boy, we had great views, and more importantly, one more biologist (me) is aware of this species and can advocate for it's protection. Now you can too.

John Gerrard Keuleman lithograph from 1869
Spoon-billed Sandpiper, breeding plumage
According to Nick, Pak Thale in the Gulf of Thailand was one of the best places in the world to see massive quantities of shorebirds. In many cases, there are minute differences one can barely observe between many species. So imagine little white-with-beige-and-black-markings birds filling your vision completely, heat waves making them shaky, and trying with all your might to find a specific bird Nick is pointing out that's different than the rest. It's like trying to pick out one black stripe on one zebra in a moving herd of them. But boy, Nick was excellent. And patient.

Grey-headed Lapwing
Little Ringed Plover
Going from pond to pond, we racked up the species count.

Chinese Egret

Wood Sandpiper

Black-winged Stilt
We met a Swedish birder, whose non-birding (obviously!) family members dropped him off in this searing wasteland so he could look for the Spoon-billed. We made our way back to where we had seen our original two to show him, hoping they were still there. Nearing our spot, we walked by a little wood shack; it created the only shade within 20 miles. Walking around one side to get to the shade, we stopped short, as there was a couple who had claimed the shade, sitting smartly in folding chairs, spotting scope set up for close-up views of birds. More birders!

Wow! thought I, taking a closer peek:

Nick, speaking Thai, conversed with the couple. I noticed the husband had some pencils and a sketchbook in hand, drawing casually. Another journal was nearby and open, showing full-color images that were stunning. A bit impressionistic with swirls of color, but also true to the birds themselves. They were remarkable.

I couldn't help but exclaim at this beautiful artistry with clear awe in my voice. Nick translated, and the gentleman smiled while I gushed over his artwork. He handed me his journal, and I took it gingerly, not wanting to be responsible for any damage. Leafing through the pages, I marveled at his extraordinary talent. We chatted a bit via Nick, took some photos, and managed to find those Spoon-billeds for our Swede, much to his glee.

Me and artist Kamol Komolphalin, just hangin' out at some mudflats
As we walked away, Nick asked if I knew who that artist was. No clue, of course. Well, continues Nick, that was Kamol Komolphalin, the artist for the first book of the birds of Thailand (sort of like the Roger Tory Peterson of Thailand). What? Yup. I had walked up on one of the foremost Thai bird artists, browsed through his journal, took some photos, and said buh-bye, walking off not knowing whom I had met. Here are some of his images from cards I bought at my subsequent national park visits:

I love how his field notes are kept as part of the full image
Decidedly wilted and ready to crank some AC in the vehicle, we loaded up. Nick looked at me and said "off to Mr. Deang." Through the countryside we drove.

So who is Mr. Deang? That, readers, will be answered next.

Birdwatch...ahem, well, maybe not. Aravaipa Canyon, AZ, ca. 2006

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