Southern Thailand is awash with countless exciting rainforest bird species and the intricate network of roads which traverse the peninsula allow easy access to all but the most remote of locations. However, the issue many birdwatchers face is the choice of which sites would be best for finding the species they are currently after. The majority of birdwatchers visiting the kingdom are have a limited time frame and finding and hitting the right locations in order to get the highest possible number of species is of utmost importance.
Knowing what sites are “hot” is equally important as knowing which sites are “not”. Hence, the following list was created as a counterweight to the already existing list of Top Ten Birdwatching Sites in the South. The list is placed by order of “least desirable” (first on the list) to “passable” or “severely downgraded” (tenth in the lists). The last five sites are not placed in any particular order.
No doubt there will be some fluctuations from time to time and some sites may rebound while others sink deeper into oblivion. I will try to update these lists from time to time to reflect any changes that may occur with the passing years.
If you have any objections or would like to add some input to these lists, please feel free to contact me.
1. Haat Chao Mai National Park, Trang
Once in the limelight for its lone resident Black necked Stork, the park has since slipped into complete oblivion. With no hope of ever finding another stork, park staff have turned to the catering and restaurant business to maintain their stock of customers and keep the park budget in the black.
While the occasional Pied Imperial or Green Imperial Pigeon or Buffy Fish Owl are spotted in the mangrove areas, bird life for the most part is virtually non-existent and the beaches are often dirty and unfit for swimming.
Sandwiched between a local fishing community and the bright lights of luxury hotels, commercialism has slowly been squeezing the last breath of life from this national park. Poor infrastructure and maintenance has left the park polluted and the beach forest severely degraded.
The 2004 Tsumani also had a major impact on the park, reshaping the beach and forcing the staff to construct their offices and bungalows farther inland. Relocating inland meant the clearing of the last viable bird habitat, forcing the birds to move away.
The northern sector suffers from hunting pressure and disturbance as well as forest encroachment.
The former stakeout for Pale capped Pigeon went from being a quiet, bird-friendly habitat to a bustling tourist center almost overnight, much to the dismay of many local and foreign birdwatchers. Among the “improvements” was a row of seafood restaurants, souvenir shops, a TAT assistance and information center and a commercial pier for ferries to Phi Phi, Raya and other destinations.
Birders who have visited recently attest to having spotted individual or pairs of Pale capped Pigeon or Pied Imperial Pigeon, but this pales in comparison to the bygone days when groups of 18 of more birds were spotted roosting in the casuarinas near the park office.
Once a popular twitching spot for a variety of birds such as Brown winged Kingfisher, Black hooded Oriole, Mangrove Pitta and Lesser Fish Eagle, birdlife in and around the park headquarters and mangroves have mysteriously disappeared without a trace. Even a boat trip down the mangroves is disappointing, with nary a beady-eyed reptile or boisterous bird in sight.
The lack of birds could be blamed on the increasing impact of tourism in the bay along with increased hunting pressure from local households caught under heavy financial pressure, both of which result in greater disturbance along the waterways and in the mangroves.
A former stakeout for the Chestnut naped Forktail, this natural beauty is slowly losing its luster. Bird life has all but disappeared with the exception of a few flowerpeckers in the parking area. The park is thronged by visitors at all hours of the day, most of whom have little or no respect for nature. Pollution is an ongoing problem as is the presence of children armed with slingshots patrolling the trail into the forest interior.
The well-maintained trail is still one of the best places for children and young people who want to take a leisurely trek through a southern rainforest, but don’t do it for the sake of finding birds.
The last remnant of protected rainforest on the island, Khao Prataow was the last refuge for many of Phuket’s jungle species. Sadly, much of the birdlife which once thrived here has all but disappeared. Among the lost are species such as Little Green Pigeon, Cinnamon headed Pigeon, White bellied Munia and Banded Pitta.
On occasion a few interesting birds show up such as Malaysian Night Heron, Bay Owl and Oriental Pied Hornbill, and the waterfall on the west side of the park is now home to the eastern race of Black Crested Bulbul, thought to be introduced via the cagebird trade.
7. Phi Phi Island, Krabi
A household name in many parts of the world, Phi Phi Island is more known for its undersea life than it is for its birds. The nature trail which winds through the last remnants of forest left on this tropical paradise are almost completely devoid of any winged creatures. Nobody knows how they disappeared but the fact of the matter is, the only birds you’ll find now are only the most common species.
If it weren’t for the frigatebird island just south of Phi Phi, this site might have been found vying for honors somewhere among the top five in this list.
Old timers at the park still reminisce when the trees were filled with flocks of hornbills, fairy bluebirds, broadbills and other beautiful birds. These days the dominant birds are bulbuls, mynas and flowerpeckers. Even the pigeons have been routed out.
A network of poacher trails crisscross the hilly forests and much of the wildlife has been drained from within its borders. For now the park is only good as a watershed. Who knows, with a bit of proper management perhaps the wildlife in the park can be revived again.
9. Khao Panom Bencha National Park, Krabi
Mismanagement and rampant corruption have turned this once rich park into a living nightmare. Illegal logging and forest encroachment has led to the sacking of a number of high-profile forestry officials in recent years and unabated poaching has led to the disappearance of many hornbills, malkoha and other large birds.
The degradation of the forest played a role in the deadly mudslide in early 2011 which wiped out an entire community at the base of the mountain. Locals blamed the landslide on the destruction of forests in the region, but whether or not the people will adhere to the rules in the future or continue to log the valuable hardwood trees is still to be seen.
Like most forest reserves, the staff at Khao Bantat are often more focused on protecting the forest from loggers than keeping the poachers at bay. With a high number of birds (such as Asian Fairly Bluebird, Black naped Oriole and Stripe throated Bulbul) being trapped for the cagebird trade and poached for dinner soup pots, its no wonder the bird life has dramatically decreased over the last few decades.
Still, it is rumored that if a birder were to venture deeper into the heart of the forest one may uncover the hidden gems which lie therein. This is, after all, the one place on the west coast which holds records for Crested Fireback, Chestnut capped Thrush and Rhinoceros Hornbill. –But then, how can you delve deep into the forest if there aren’t any trails …
Other sites which seem to be going quiet in the past few years:
Make no mistake –Ngao still has birds and plenty of them. The problem is they are moving father into the interior of the park, away from the crowds which flock there on the weekends. With only a limited trail network and few birding options, coupled with its somewhat remote location, the chances of this site ever competing for a spot in a birdwatcher’s itinerary are getting slimmer by the year.
12. Khao Budo – Sunghai Padi National Park
The jungles of Narathiwat are popular hideouts for insurgents in the deep south and it seems like they have now found a way to fund their terrorist activities while holed up in the hills –through illegal logging. With the army resources stretched to its limits and a ban on weapons for forestry officials, deforestation of one of the tallest and most diverse mountain ranges in the south seems like the inevitable conclusion of this ongoing saga.
13. Khao Sok National Park Headquarters, Surat Thani
When I refer to Khao Sok here I am not referring to the actual park which is still very rich in bird and mammal life. I am specifically referring to the two trails around the HQ which birders are most familiar with and which tends to be the most frequented.
Reports from birders who have visited Khao Sok over the past few years have told of agonizingly long periods of silence and few sightings of interest. Some parts of the trail are overgrown to the point of being impassable. Many of the once common specialties are now simply nowhere to be found.
Another option for this park would be to enter via the Rajaprapa Dam and stay at one of the floating bungalows on the Chieo Laan Reservoir.
Corruption within the ranks of the park staff at Khao Lumpee have driven the population of large birds such as hornbills and eagles to extinction; likewise the construction of makeshift homes and the destruction of beach forest in Thai Muang has left the park reeling. Despite all this, there are still some specialties to be found by the patient birder who is interested in locating the hidden gems: Pin tailed Parrotfinch, Orange Breasted Green Pigeon, Green Broadbill and Spotted Wood Owl to name a few.
Some people are going to be surprised that this well-known site made it into the list. The question many birders are going to be asking is “How did this happen?”
I’m sorry to say but I can’t really offer any answers to this riddle as well.
-Was it the opening of a bar/restaurant near the entrance to the cape? -Was it because the fishermen turned to trapping the birds to make ends meet? –Is it the result of pollution in the water from multitude of fishing boats in the area? –Is tourism having a negative impact on the area?
It’s not like all the birds have disappeared. Off in the distance a number of terns can still be seen foraging in the open seas and a handful of waders are often spotted roosting atop some blackened rocks near the shoreline. However, this is nothing like it once was in the past.