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!

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