Legally Blind Birding

Testing the Patience of Birding Guides Around the World

Week 8: February 14 – February 20, Thailand

Working Days: 5

New species identified: 21

Total to date: 445 (removed another double-counted bird)

17.8% of goal, 15.4% of year used

Sites visited: Krabí & Koh Klang, Thailand

This was a tough weekend. We recorded upwards of 65 species, but we are seeing diminishing returns in the southern half of Thailand now; only 21 of these were new birds for the year. This did include some very good ones, such as Brown-winged Kingfisher, Golden-bellied Gerygone, and Slaty-breasted Rail.

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Looking up-river from the city of Krabí

All of our birding was done in the immediate area of the town of Krabí, which is roughly halfway down the peninsula. The area of almost entirely mangroves, and we birded up the river by boat as well as on the island of Koh Klang.

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Mudskippers

Our guide was rather inexperienced and not well-prepared. We quickly realized that he didn’t know his bird calls; also, he didn’t have a scope, which was a real hindrance with the shorebirds; I relied on taking photos and scrutinizing them later in order to get the IDs. He got several species quite wrong, such as an juvenile Shikra which he called a Peregrine Falcon, and some Black-winged Stilts, which he called Red-wattled Lapwings.(!)

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Brown-winged Kingfisher

Next weekend: Taipei area, Taiwan

Week 7: February 7 – February 13, Cambodia

Working Days: 5

New species identified: 50

Total to date: 425 (removed another double-counted bird)

17.0% of goal, 13.5% of year used

Sites visited: Siem Reap, Prek Toal, and Ang Trapeang Thmor, Cambodia

The floodplains of Western Cambodia make an easy weekend destination from Bangkok. The flight to Siem Reap takes an hour, and several interesting sites are within a few hours drive from there. The land here is utterly unlike any of the areas we have birded to date in Asia. Hot, flat, steamy, and wide-open.

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Can you picture what will be, so limitless and free? Desperately in need of some stranger’s hand – In a desperate land (If you don’t get the movie reference,  you have some remedial film study to do)

On Saturday we were joined by two birders from Holland (actually one birder and his wife, who was a real trooper throughout the whole day, I must say. I cannot imagine having a non-birding spouse) and we were taken to the inlet to Tonlé Sop, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. Specifically we headed to the Prek Toal area, accessible only by boat.

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The way to Prek Toal

This area is home to several floating villages; really quite a remarkable way to live. These structures are secured to the floor of the river but can easily be moved as needed – such as they must when the rainy season changes the geography of the place. It is also a very loud experience, as the ear-busting roar of outboard motors creates a perpetual din.

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Floating village near Prek Toal

Well outside the villages some good birds were to be found, including Lesser Adjutant, Spot-billed Pelican, and Grey-headed Fish-Eagle. The cramped confines of the small boat made this necessarily short. There was a platform for walking but it was not accessible due to the water level. We were back in town by 3 PM but not ready to be done birding, so we went to the local city park in the heart of Siem Reap.

Not such good birding here, as expected; however a large soaring and utterly confusing profile led us to the large trees in the park center where we found scores of Cambodian Flying Foxes. They were occasionally vocalizing in a way that sounds quite like pishing.

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Large roost of Cambodian Flying Foxes in central Siem Reap

Several Shikras flew over the tree but I imagine these bats are a bit too big for them.

On Sunday we drove northwest out to Ang Trapeang Thmor, a large reservoir apparently built by slave labor during the days of the Khmer Rouge. On the way out and the way back we stopped to scan the dry rice paddies for Sarus Crane, and found four of them.  The guides took this opportunity to share the scope with some of the local children – what better way to acquaint them with this resource which they hopefully will come to protect. Other highlights were several of the strikingly patterned Pied Harrier, Comb Duck, Garganey, and great mobs of Lesser Whistling Duck with their strange upright landing posture. With the help of a local ranger we found (and saw) four owl species in one large stand of trees: Barn Owl, Spotted Wood-Owl, Spotted Owlet, and Asian Barred Owlet.

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Future Cambodian birders (we hope) looking at distant Sarus Cranes

Given the great distance of most of these birds and my general poor photography skills, you are spared the perusal of many bad images, except for the following of a cooperative Yellow-browed Warbler.

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Yellow-browed Warbler; rather poorly named, it seems to me

This warbler is the perfect example of the next best thing to a Lifer: An Upgrade Bird. We’d only ever had a very maddening, fleeting look at one of these before. Quite nice to get an obliging individual that lets you get to know them, as it were.

Next weekend; Krabí province in Thailand. It is going to get more challenging to keep up the 50 birds plus pace in this area of Asia, and I fear that we will miss the mark this weekend, as we only have a day and half due to a travel constraint.

Week 6: January 31 – February 6, Malaysia

Working Days: 5

New species identified: 63

Total to date: 376 (removed a double-counted bird in my Ecuador list)

15.0% of goal, 11.5% of year used

Sites visited: Fraser’s Hill, Krau Wildlife Reserve, Taman Botani Negara Shah Alam (Kuala Lumpur), Malaysia

Friday evening we flew from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur, and then set off early Saturday morning for Krau Wildlife Reserve in Pahang. Our guide was Weng Chun, whom we birded with last year. Weng is an absolutely fantastic guide and worked with Noah Stryker during his Big Year stop in this area. I had sent him a very long list of target birds a few months ago, and he devised an itinerary for us that really maximized our count and gave us one of our best weekend outings in Asia to date.  His website, A Malaysian Birder, has some great photographs of the many specialties in this area. Weng posted his summary of the trip here.

Krau is a great area for lowland species. We didn’t enter the park itself (we could hear elephants vocalizing from there), but stayed around the outskirts. This was a very productive outing.

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Rain shortened our stay at this blind, but not before a Black-capped Babbler showed up

Highlights in this area included Sooty-capped and Black-capped Babbler, Little Bronze Cuckoo, Blue-Crowned Hanging Parrot, Scarlet-rumped Trogon, Long-billed Spiderhunter, Yellow-vented, Scarlet-bellied and Yellow-bellied Flowerpeckers (all in the same tree at the same time), and Black-and-Yellow and Banded Broadbills.

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Banded Broadbill

On Saturday afternoon we headed up to Fraser’s Hill. If you come from the east, the road up is even more winding and dizzying than the road which comes from the direction of Kuala Lumpur. At one point as we neared “The Gap” and we pulled off to bird, another car pulled off behind so that the occupants could take a “vomit break.” Fraser’s Hill was cold and drizzly, just like it was for us last year.

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Roti Pratha, the finest food in Singapore and Malaysia

Saturday night the weather turned ugly, with high winds that persisted all night. The birding the following morning was not very good, although we were able to patiently wait out a White-Tailed Robin.

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Quite windy Saturday night in Fraser’s Hill; this scene greeted us Sunday morning

We spent over an hour in a makeshift blind in the rain waiting for the Malaysian Partridge. Several groups of photographers joined us, but gave up after about 40 minutes. They should have waited – he finally showed up and was not even particularly skiittish.

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Malaysian Partridge

At another ‘feeding station’ our patience was rewarded with a White-tailed Robin, a very striking black, blue, and white fellow:

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White-tailed Robin

The birding Sunday morning in Fraser’s Hill was quite poor, with high winds and very little bird song. We decided to head back towards the city early, in order to have time to bird at the National Botanic Gardens, a.k.a. Taman Botani Negara Shah Alam. This proved to be a very good idea. Three new spiderhunters were found: Gray-breasted, Spectacled, and Little Spiderhunter. And despite it being Sunday, with large crowds and considerable heat, we managed to wait out and see both Blue-Winged and Hooded Pittas between 4 and 5PM. These were the first pittas we have ever seen, having only heard Blue Pitta previously.

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Blue-winged Pitta, surprisingly near a lot of loud human (and monkey) activity

This coming weekend we head to Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Week 5: January 24 – January 30, Thailand

Working Days: 5

New species identified: 55

Total to date: 313

12.5% of goal, 9.6% of year used

Sites visited: Kaeng Krachan National Park, Thailand

A day and a half in and around Kaeng Krachan National Park netted us 92 species, with 55 of them being new for the year; the others were seen in Bangkok or Khao Yai earlier. Kaeng Krachan is about a three-hour drive southwest from the city, and unlike Khao Yai, it was not teeming with crowds on the weekend. The traffic is low enough such that you can stop and bird on the road. And most of the other visitors were there for birds or the hordes of butterflies.

We spent Saturday in the park, and found the higher reaches to be more productive. Specifically, there is a second visitor center about a 45-minute drive beyond the first one. It featured birds such as Great and Blue-Throated Barbets, Black-winged Cuckooshrike, and Olive, Flavescent, and Mountain Bulbuls.

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Prime birding spot in KK

Our half-day on Sunday was at the Bo Lung Sin blind. This is a private spot that the guides from Baan Maka (our hotel) can access. For a few hundred baht, the owner will come by and put fresh water in the bird bath and scatter grain and fruit on the ground. The avian (and mammilian) visitors come slowly but they are worth the wait.

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The scene at the Bo Lung Sin blind. Red Junglefowl and a Lesser Mouse Deer, which isn’t much bigger

This site was a good place to enjoy the taxonomically-challenged Kalij/Silver Pheasant.

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eBird (and the majority of opinion, as far as I can tell) says this is a Kalij Pheasant. This crawfurdi ssp. has been placed under Silver as well

The food and water also attracted gangs of both Greater and Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrushes.

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Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush

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Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrush

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Unexpected Grey-headed Woodpecker

One hardly needs a blind for good looks at Pied Fantails, but there was a pair flitting about as if begging to be photographed, often strutting around like little male Wild Turkeys in display.

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fantail

This weekend we will head to Frasier’s Hill in Malaysia, where I am optimistic about keeping up the ~ 50 new species per weekend rate.

Week 4: January 17 – January 23, Thailand

Working Days: 5

New species identified: 53

Total to date: 258

10.3% of goal, 7.7% of year used

Sites visited: Khao Yai National Park, Thailand

When I was setting up our trip to Khao Yai several months ago, the hotel manager asked me “You don’t want to come here on a weekend, do you?” Meaning that during the winter here in Thailand, this most famous of their National Parks is very, very busy. And they were right. Unfortunately, during a Big Working Year, weekends are the only time to bird outside of vacation days, so we had to brave the crowds; every trail we went on had (noisy) people on them, and Silver Pheasants and Siamese Firebacks were nowhere around, not surprisingly.

Only 53 species; considerably less than what I was hoping for. Three of the four hornbills were seen and heard; the wings of the Great Hornbill make a very loud, somewhat spooky sound when the bird flies over. We saw a pair near a potential nesting cavity – soon the female will be walled up inside the tree for the extended brooding period. Other highlights were Common Green Magpie, Banded Kingfisher, White-Rumped Shama, and some nice looks at Hill Blue Flycatchers, which have the same pleasing color scheme as our Eastern Bluebirds back home.

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Hill Blue Flycatcher

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Our friend and birding apprentice Mai, pointing out the dangers of Sambar Deer. They are not nearly as big as elk, as the sign would indicate

Always nice to see Red Junglefowl – ancestor of the common chicken.

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Red Junglefowl on roadside

We did (finally) see an Asian Elephant, a pack of wild dogs, and our guide was very good at finding Pit Vipers with his scope. Not sure I would want to find them any other way. Often they were found draped on low-hanging branches; no reason why they couldn’t be at head height right over the trail…

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Asian Elephant, an endangered species

Week 3: January 9 – January 16, Minnesota to Bangkok

Working Days: 6

New species identified: 19

Total to date: 205

8.2% of goal, 5.8% of year used

Sites visited: Sea-Tac airport, Washington, Lumphini Park, Bangkok

This week had very little birding as we had to burn effectively two days fro travel from Minnesota to Seattle to Seoul to Bangkok. Lots of delays and quite grueling. From the airport in Seattle we saw a Glacous-winged Gull; otherwise the only birding was at Lumphini Park in central Bangkok for a couple hours Sunday morning. Just the typical Bangkok regulars such as Asian Koels, Coppersmith Barbets, Magpie-Robins, Spotted Doves, etc.

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At Lumphini Park in central Bangkok

Far and away the most common bird in the park is the Large-billed Crow. They look like a cross between and American Crow and Raven and sound a bit like our Fish Crows in the eastern US.

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Large-billed Crow, an aptly-named corvid

The next update will be much more interesting; will have a full report from Khao Yai National Park.

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Our field guides for the first half of the year. A color e-reader with a very bright screen will replace all this someday. I hope

Week 2: January 2 – January 8, Minnesota

Working days: 4

New species identified: 24

Total to date: 186

7.44% of goal, 3.8% of year used

Sites visited: Bloomington and Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota

Comments:

1. The only notable outing this week was a quick trip up to Sax-Zim Bog on Sunday, January 7. That is about a 3 to 3.5 hour drive each way from our house. It was a fairly slow day and we missed a number of expected birds; but we did get a long-time Nemesis removed from our life lists, namely, the Black-backed Woodpecker. Must have been about our tenth try for this striking carpintero. Other notables included a Hoary Redpoll mixed in with abundant Common Redpolls, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Grey Jay, Snow Buntings, and several Great Grey Owls, including this one:

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With eyes closed, could be something of a big, cold Potoo

2. Since we will be using the first half of this Global Big Working Year to support The Bog, it seemed necessary to visit during our last weekend in Minnesota for the year. We had a chance to meet up with Sparky Stensaas, one of the founders of Friends of Sax-Zim Bog and the instigator of their Big Half Year fundraiser.

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If you are unfamiliar with Sax-Zim, you should know that it is truly deserves status as a Holy Site of birding. It has been called the “Arctic Riviera” as it attracts specialties such as Northern Hawk Owls and Boreal Chickadees in the winter. And it is less than an hour drive from Duluth, another Mecca of Minnesota birding where oddball gulls, jaegers, owls (including Snowy and Boreal), and sundry waterfowl find themselves at the end of the natural funnel created by Lake Superior during fall and winter; while spring has tremendous songbird fallout potential at Park Point. Meanwhile there is nearby Hawk Ridge, where autumn sees astounding numbers of raptors channeled into the region in their attempts to navigate the boundary of the world’s largest lake.

3. For the sake of completeness, I’m putting the running species list at the bottom of this page.

Week 1: Dec 26 2017 – Jan 1 2018, Ecuador

Working days: 0 (December Holiday period)

Species identified: 162

Total to date: 162

6.48% of goal, 1.9% of year used

Sites visited: Galapagos Islands (San Cristobal, Española, Santa Cruz, Isabela), Puembo, Antisana, Papallacta, Guango Lodge, San Isidrio

Comments:

  1. Birding in the Galapagos is challenging, despite the low number of species and the relatively easy habitat (no dark rainforests or neck-breaking canopy to squint at). There are no outfits that I could find that specialize in providing birding guides or birding-specific tours. There are occasional fixed-date tours with limited numbers of spots, which cater to birders, but these types of tours never work for us – we need flexible dates. There are plenty of tour companies, but the guides tend to have little knowledge of bird species which are not crowd-pleasers, and the ones that we worked with were not good at identification. For example, our guides would point out Frigatebirds but couldn’t discriminate Magnificent from Great. Another ‘naturalist’ that we worked with could not ID a pair of American Oystercatchers. Day trips to interesting islands would be with a group of other people, none of whom would have much patience if you held up the group in order to pursue a Warbler Finch, for example. On the other hand, one cannot simply bird most of the island on their own, as a guide is required by law.
  2. Birding the Galapagos is, despite this, a worthwhile trip. It is a quality, not quantity, sort of experience. The birds (and other wildlife) are generally fearless and approachable and can be enjoyed in a most novel way.
  3. The ‘Darwin finches’ are a challenging lot. Our strategy was to photograph the most interesting ones and study the pictures after the fact. The Medium Ground Finches were ubiquitous and showed quite a range of bill sizes and shapes.
  4. A number of sources had said that December was a terrible month for having a chance to see Waved Albatross, but this was not our experience. We saw several while on the ferry from Santa Cruz to San Cristobal, and then saw at least a dozen on Isla Española.
  5. Speaking of ferries, they typically provide a poor birding platform in Galapagos, as they move very fast, don’t stop for birds or cetaceans, and usually have very limited seating with any kind of view. On several ferries, all I could do is take photos of rapidly receding seabirds and study them later.
  6. For our three days on mainland Ecuador, we worked with a pair of guides, Byron and Manuel, that are based out of Wildsumaco Lodge. I cannot recommend them highly enough. We had birded with them previously several years ago and on that first trip, had really ‘cleaned up’ on the easier birds. On this trip I gave them a list of target lifers, many of which were quite tough, and they delivered on the majority of them. We got Slate-Crowned Antpitta (seen), Red-Rumped Bush-Tyrant, Andean Condor, Purple-Backed Thornbill, Golden-Crowned Tanager, and the best look at any tapaculo (in this case a Long-Tailed Tapaculo) that we have ever had, to name a few. Look them up if you are in Ecuador.
  7. December 31 in Ecuador is quite an experience. One of the local customs is for small groups of people to use a rope or chain pulled taut across the road in order to stop traffic, while several others parade about in garish costumes and ask motorists for change, which they will ostensibly use to purchase alcohol for the night’s debaucheries. This generally involved men dressed in drag, gyrating and prancing about in the road. It was often LOL-funny.

 

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On Bartolomé, Galapagos, Dec 25 2017. Two birders, two non-birders

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Introduced llamas at Laguna de la Mica, Antisana, Ecuador

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Pass near Papallacta, Ecuador, Jan 1 2018. The recent snowfall brought a crowd up from Quito. Locals thought it was cold. For Minnesotans (our sons), it was more like a March day when shorts are appropriate attire

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Nazca Boobies on Isla Española, Galapagos

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Galapagos Mockingbird on Isla Santa Cruz

 

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Española Mockingbird, endemic to Isla Española. No fear whatsoever

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Galapagos Penguin, Isla Bartolomé (also found many more on Isla Isabela)

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Green Jay in San Isidrio

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Not a good picture, but the Black-faced Ibis puts all other ibises to shame. Striking bird. Seen in the Antisana highlands east of Quito

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Chestnut-Breasted Coronet in San Isidrio

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Long-Tailed Sylphs are quite common at the feeders at San Isidrio.

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This man needs beer money. Can you help?

Upcoming:

Week 9: Bangkok & Taipei, Taiwan

Week 10: Nepal

Week 11: Bangkok & Chiang Mai, Thailand

Week 12: Bangkok & Subic Bay, Philippines

Week 13: Bangkok & Yunnan, China

Week 14: Bangkok & Yunnan, China

Week 15: Bangkok & Ethiopia

Week 16: South Africa

Week 17: Bangkok & Vietnam (south)

Week 18: Bangkok & Sydney, Australia

Week 19: Bangkok & Sichuan, China

Week 20: Bangkok & Java, Indonesia (Jakarta area)

Week 21: Bangkok & Sichuan, China

Week 22: Bangkok & Sabah, Borneo

Week 23: Bangkok & Beijing, China

Week 24: OPEN

Week 25: Bangkok & Tokyo, Japan

Week 26: Bangkok & Singapore

Week 27: Bangkok & Tokyo, Japan

Week 31: Bangkok & Darwin, Australia

Week 32: OPEN

Week 33: Bangkok & Bali, Indonesia

Other dates: TBD!

 

 

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