Monday, May 28, 2018

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

Act X: The Gift of a Bird

For all my Bhutan and Thailand entries, please see the above "Bhutan & Thailand" tab

"For it is in giving that we receive.” Saint Francis of Assisi

They were my parent's old, dusty, mis-aligned set of binoculars. The bird was a common one, so common that a thousand birds later, I can't even remember what it was. Probably a robin, blue jay, or mourning dove. But the moment the two came together through my 15-year-old eyes, I felt my world shift under my feet. That's what I remember. To see close up the glint in that bird's eye reflecting its drive to survive, the subtle coloration of one feather among a million others, the tiny movements of feet scratching a branch and a beak probing treebark; well, nothing was ever quite the same again for me. What's the next bird going to look like, and the next one, and the one after that? What other things did I miss when I didn't take the time to look closely enough at something that I relegated to the periphery of my world? Why did it take me 15 years to figure out this magic?

The simple "ooooohhhh!!!" reaction when one sees -- I mean really sees -- their first bird belies what happens behind the scenes. In about two seconds, the brain runs through the following:

1) Ooooohhhh!!!
2) These things are around me all the time, and I never knew that a -- pick any common bird group: dove, duck, robin, sparrow, hawk -- really looked like that!
3) Astonishment on face.
4) You all gotta see this!!!

And then comes the quiet as your mind processes that you're seeing this amazing thing for the first time; that this amazing thing has been there the whole time you've been busy-busy-busy living your life; and that you can never look at a tree, the top of a telephone pole (or in Arizona, a saguaro cactus), a pond, a lake, a clump of bushes, the air, the sea, the heavens, or the earth the same way again.

Because now you know a secret. And it changes your life.'s first bird is a gift.

Ralph and Nit

Nit and Ralph, actually
After the first four days of birding on one side of Bangkok in the Gulf of Thailand, Kaeng Krachan National Park, and areas in between, I was dropped off by my guide Nick back in Bangkok at the familiar Hotel Mariya for the evening. Early the next morning, British guide Ralph and his Thai wife Nit would pick me up, and we'd be off for Khao Yai National Park and the last three days of my Thai birding adventure.

A sampling of Khao Yai National Park
It wasn't hard to spot Ralph and Nit when they pulled up to the hotel with their SUV. Highly organized birders through and through, Ralph and Nit were already wearing their birding vests, binoculars strapped on, ready for birds. We packed the car with my stuff and I climbed into my space in their rig, anticipating what might be seen over the next few days from through that very window.

Our digs near Khao Yai National Park
Off we went. I chatted about my first few days with Nick, and Ralph outlined his general plan for us that centered around Khao Yai. We'd stay at a hotel in a nearby town much like my earlier set-up -- small cabin-like duplexes that were comfortable, clean, and air-conditioned. We'd focus on Khao Yai for most of my remaining three days, and visit other "birdy" spots along the way back to the Bangkok airport my last evening to arrive in time for my 9:00 p.m. flight back home. Ralph and Nit supplied me with a very much appreciated "tea box" of all the things needed to make tea in my room (water heater, mug, spoon, tea, and coffee boxed up perfectly) and just so happened to have stashed the makings for gin & tonics to end our long days of birding. I settled in with them comfortably and felt right at home. Indeed, both were just some of the added touches that made me feel welcomed like a friend. It really was the perfect way to cap off my Asia adventure!

The well-earned G&T for all back at the hotel.
His cooler contained more than food!!!
Khao Yai was busy! It was Sunday, and the park was crowded with Thai visitors I assumed were mostly from Bangkok, getting away from that bustling city to pitch a tent in a bustling campground. Rolled-up tents and sleeping bags indicated most were packing up to head home. We pulled into a crowded campground that had some good birding spots including a huge tree in the middle of a grassy field and a nearby creek.

Ralph opened up the back of the SUV to pull out lunch supplies. Out from the cooler came some deli meat, cheese, bread, and condiments. "I brought some mealworms too," he said casually, as a plastic tub full of inch-long squirming worms came out from next to the cooler. Ah, birders. Mealworms set in strategic places attract birds, and, well, you can't be fussy about traveling with mealworms, right? I didn't even blink. Birders don't pause at mealworms for company.

The full image; I didn't want to give it away!

We parked ourselves at a picnic table near the big tree that was fruiting with something that attracted multiple birds. We sprinkled mealworms around, ate lunch, and birded the tree and surrounding environs as most people cleared out.

Moustached Barbet

Thick-billed Green Pigeon
Surprisingly, a huge monitor lizard walked around the campground and aside from me, no one paid it any attention. This, readers, is Thailand.

Leech Socks

After lunch, we decided to explore the nearby creek and it's adjacent jungle-ness. Let's go, I said. Wait a minute, said Ralph. We have to dress the part. It's time for leech socks. What? Leeches? I remembered the three-to-four-inch things that I once or twice had to pull off my legs swimming in a northern Minnesota lake. Holy cow, there's not a bird in the world important enough for me to tramp through leeches to see.

Noooooooo!!!! (photo credit)
Well, explained Ralph, these leeches are tiny, perhaps a half-inch long, and are probably not even present as it's the dry season. It's mostly a precaution. Nit pulled out these canvas knee-high sock-type booties and showed me the set-up. Take off shoes; hike the leech socks over your regular socks and pants; tie below your knees, and return shoes to feet, laces loosened a bit to adjust for the additional material in your shoes.

Nit ensured that leech socks were worn whenever we ventured into wet forests. A native Thai and a field biologist, she had seen enough to not take chances. I respected that. Sure enough the only leech we saw, a singular tiny thing, found its way onto one of Nit's leech socks. Figures; just like me and my squickiness with cockroaches -- I could be with 50 people in a room, and I'd be the only one who would get a cockroach zipping over my foot. Nit gets the leech. "See???" she said. Yes, I get it. 

Not a leech; a hammerhead worm....but still...

The Gift of a Great Hornbill

A target bird for me was the Great Hornbill. One of the largest of hornbills, it's a formidable, strikingly-marked bird that, while not common, can generally be found at Khao Yai. We packed up lunch and drove the main park road up to a saddle offering a lovely vista of the park's tropical forest. Often, Ralph said, hornbills fly by in groups and feed in the large trees adjacent to the vista's parking lot.

We were not the only ones at the vista. It's a popular spot for park visitors to stop and take the mandatory selfie, so a paved parking lot and walking areas greeted us as we pulled up. Groups of laughing friends peppered the length of the parking lot, their backs towards the view as they stared into their phones to capture that view with smiling faces (the irony was not lost on us). A few serious photographers sat next to their enormous cameras on tripods, waiting for hornbills to arrive. Yes, this was the likely spot for hornbills, so let's see what we can see.

Waiting....waiting....waiting for hornbills

Could it be????
Sure enough, in a few minutes we saw movement in the large trees at one edge of the parking area. Something, or many things, were deep in the tree, shaking fruit off large branches. Great Hornbills!!! Ralph quickly set up the tripod and spotting scope, zoomed in, and there they were.

Grand, awesome, amazing. Once again, I felt that sense of wonder that comes with seeing a bird, this creature, this living wonder, close up. Minding their own business, the hornbills focused on food, on surviving another day, on living. I sucked in the view through the scope like I was quenching a thirst. Slated, I stepped away from the scope. As their client, Ralph and Nit obligingly let me get the first look, but I certainly wanted them to enjoy the view as well. After them, I took another look. The birds seemed to be sticking around, and we all smiled at each other. Success.

It was only then that we saw a few people glancing our way. We could see they were following the line of the spotting scope into the trees, curious as to what we could possibly be seeing in those shaking branches. Ralph looked inquiringly at me, and I nodded back. We both didn't need to speak to know that it was time to invite other people into our world.

We waved our hands to the nearest group, gesturing to come look, come over and see! A few smiled and obliged. The first fellow approached the scope, figuring out just how to work it. We could tell the second he finally saw his first bird.

"Ooooohhhh!!!!!!" Excitement bubbled over as he nearly jumped back in surprise. Gesturing to a friend to hurry up and look, the next one peered through the scope. "Ooooohhhh!!!!!" Ralph and I smiled at each other as we recognized the thrill of someone just like us seeing, really seeing, their first bird. Their surprise was like an electric current touching more and more people as it flowed through the parking lot. Soon, a line of eager people waited their turn; the hornbill-viewing party was in full swing. Nit explained to them what they were seeing.

They were seeing hornbills, and I was seeing them, remembering myself at age 15, when dusty binoculars, a common bird, and my eyes joined forces. I knew that today, there were a few more people who just had their world rocked, perhaps changing them forever. In their eyes, excitement sparkled with unspoken gratitude from receiving the gift of their first bird.

Thank you Nick, Ralph, and Nit for giving ME the gifts of over 200 birds, a pangolin, wild elephants (yes!!!), and so much more. The icing on the cake was paying it forward and giving something back to a few people with whom I could not communicate in anything but the universal language of birds.

Readers, thank you for experiencing my Asia adventure! Some closing photos from my time with Ralph and Nit:

Typical walkway through the Thailand national park forests

Finally, on my last full day....elephants!!!

A short video of these incredible animals:

 The End of my Asia Adventure. Next up? Reality.....but for now, g'bye!!!!!


  1. Those hornbills! How fortunate to see wild elephants. You may have to write a book someday (in your retirement!)

  2. As usual, a great story with wonderful pictures. I understand "the bird realization" myself. I still gasp with amazement at the beauty of even the most common of birds - like a Blue Jay.