Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Birdwatching in Kaeng Krachan NP

A shroud of mist hangs over the jungle as the first morning rays penetrate the dense foliage below. We stand gazing out, shivering over a cup of hot coffee - an expected but welcome sensation in tropical Thailand - soaking up the vastness before us, and allowing the silence to penetrate our souls.
This is Kaeng Krachan National Park in Petchaburi Province,Thailand - the country’s largest national park at 2,915 square metres, yet also one of its least visited, despite being just three hours’ drive from Bangkok and two hours from Hua Hin. Bordering Burma, the park is one of the largest remaining stretches of uninterrupted forest in South-East Asia and one of Thailand’s richest biospheres.

We’ve driven to Phaneon Thung - the park’s second highest peak at 1207 metres - to greet the dawn, having arrived at the park’s eastern entrance at 5.30am. With just a rutted single-lane road to the peak, traffic is restricted, with the road open to incoming traffic from 5.30-7.30am and 1-3pm, and outgoing traffic from 9-10am and 4-5pm. We then transferred into an open jeep for a bracing ride to the misty lookout.
En route we saw plenty of evidence of wild elephants; the park is home to around 200 pachyderms, as well as other endangered species including sun bears, leopards, gaur (a wild bison), Sumatran rhinoceros and even, reportedly, tigers. Unfortunately, the park made headlines recently when the mutilated carcasses of four wild elephants were found within park boundaries, indicating that poaching of animals from the wild is still rife.
We, however, are on a specific wildlife spotting mission - bird watching. Kaeng Krachan is one of Thailand’s birdwatching havens, home to many rare and endangered species as well as some of its most spectacular birds. It is the only place in Thailand where the Ratchet-Tailed Treepie can be found, while other ornithological prizes include Giant Pitta, Grey Peacock Pheasant and Grey Slaty Woodpeckers. 
As novice twitchers, any bird sighting for my group of journalists is a coup, with our guide Amorn Liukeeratiyutkul - Chairman of the Bird Conservation Society of Thailand - excitedly showing us colourful species such as Flavescent Bulbul through his $3,000 Swarovski scope. 

After an hour or so of intensely scouring the treeline for birdlife - with ample rewards and lots of excitement - we retire to a nearby restaurant for breakfast. Just when we think the birdwatching is done for the morning, we are in for the biggest surprise of all...
Like a stealth bomber, a giant bird glides overhead. One of our local guides, dressed in khaki, runs in, pointing to the sky like Tattoo from Fantasy Island. “It’s here, it’s here!” he cries. We look up; and flying into view, its huge two-metre wingspan almost blocking the sun, is a Giant Hornbill. 
Although not the rarest bird in Kaeng Krachan, the hornbill is one of the most impressive, and certainly a prize for birdwatchers. White with black and yellow feathers, its most prominent feature is its bright yellow casque, an armour-like protrusion dominating a pterodactyl-like skull.

We watch spellbound as the enormous bird lands on a tree only 25 metres from where we are sitting. Mr Amorn is beside himself with excitement, quickly grabbing his scope for a closer view. Not that we need it - the bird is being more than co-operative, giving an Oscar-worthy performance as he struts along the branches for at least 10 minutes. He pokes his huge head down from the branch, searching for insects and tearing at loose bark, giving us the perfect view of his dramatic yellow helmet. It really is an amazing, breathtaking sight, and one I will remember forever.
For most visitors to Thailand, its National Parks and wilderness areas are not really on the radar. Beaches, yes; cities, yes - but the 102 National Parks throughout the country are largely ignored by tourists. Yet some of my most memorable experiences during my seven years visiting Thailand have been in wilderness areas. There’s nothing quite like waking to the love-song of a gibbon, the trumpet of an elephant or the sight of a magnificent bird like the Giant Hornbill. Do yourself a massive favour, and add a visit to a National Park on your next Thailand itinerary!
For birdwatching and wildlife-viewing tours, Bangkok-based Friends of Nature offer custom made programs as well as set itineraries. Visit www.friendsofnature93.com
                                                          (Pics: Julie Miller 2012)


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