Steve Potter, an old birding friend from Australia, invited me to join him on a three-day birding trip to the mountains in the north of Thailand. I immediately jumped at the idea of revisiting my hometown and the province where my birdwatching career began.
The itinerary would cover three of the tallest mountains in Thailand: Doi Lang – Doi Fahom Pok, Doi Angkang and Doi Intanon. The idea was to cover one site per day, spending as many daylight hours as possible in the field and relocating to our next destination by cover of night.
Doi Intanon was the only site I was familiar with as I’d had the opportunity to visit the mountain four times while living in the north. During that time, Angkang was the embroiled in a border conflict between Thai and Burmese troops and a pair of foreign birders had been murdered on the border by Shan State troops, prompting BCST to issue a warning to all birders to avoid the area. Doi Lang, which forms a natural boundary between the two countries, was also strictly off limits to all civilian personnel at the time.
Logistics: We used Air Asia as our carrier and rented a Chevrolet pickup truck from North Wheels for local transportation. The vehicle served us well but had difficulty climbing the slippery slopes and navigating the treacherous road to the summit of Doi Lang – Fahom Pok. Had we known what the conditions were like, we would have rented a four-wheel-drive.
Field Guides: We mainly relied on Round and Lekaguls’ Field guide to Birds of Thailand (1990 edition), cross referencing it with Robsons’ 2004 edition by the same name, although we found the former to be slightly better in terms of color plates and species distribution information, albeit slightly outdated.
Day 1: Doi Lang – Doi Fahom Pok
Steve and I arrived in Chiang Mai in the evening and after picking up the vehicle at the airport at 8 PM, drove 180 kilometers to Tha Torn (pronounced tha-dtawn) on the banks of the Mae Kok river. Our host for the night would be the simple yet pleasant Tha Thorn Garden Resort, which cost us 800 baht a night and had hot showers and clean, comfortable beds.
Light showers were prevalent throughout the night, despite our having witnessed a perfectly clear view of the lunar eclipse in Mae Rim only 120 kilometers south of Tha Torn.
By 5 AM we were up and on the road to Doi Lang. We ended up backtracking a few times as the directions we gleaned from the web never mentioned passing through a small community and we assumed we’d already passed our turnoff.
By the time we arrived at the first army checkpoint it was already dawn and the weather was damp and quite foggy.
The road to the summit (Doi Fahom Pok) was in very poor condition with some sections looking more like a riverbed than a blacktop road. At some inclines it took a couple of hair-raising attempts to maneuver the pickup truck up the slippery and crater-filled slopes.
About 18 kilometers past the checkpoint we encountered a party of Thai birdwatchers from Bangkok who had decided it was too foggy and dangerous to continue and therefore decided to wait until the weather cleared up. They stayed behind while we ventured on into the unknown.
Various stops along the way were forgettable, as poor visibility made birding nigh impossible. The only birds of note were Olive backed Pipit and a single female Red Junglefowl.
Our first stop was at the rice fields where we were told Jerdon’s Buschat could be found. Our search for the bird led us to scour almost the entire sections of paddyfield parallel to the road but not even a female Jerdon’s was spotted. Thankfully there was little or no mist in the area and we were able to compile a decent list of birds from the area, including Oriental Turtledove, Grey Bushchat, Stonechat, Oriental Magpie Robin, Green Magpie, Little Bunting, Slaty Blue Flycatcher, Japanese White Eye, Besra, Grey backed Shrike and a few other interesting species.
After an hour or so we continued up the road towards the second army checkpoint, nearly running full-speed into (of all things) an albino water buffalo standing in the middle of the road. In normal circumstances this would far from newsworthy, but when the animal in question is white and found grazing in the middle of a road at an elevation of over 1800 meters above sea level, one can’t help but wonder what is wrong with the picture!
At the summit checkpoint we were greeted with dense fog and blustery, 12-degree winds which were driving a wave of bird activity right past the area. Spotted in the mix were dozens of Black backed Sibia, Chestnut crowned Laughingthrush, Whiskered Yuhina and Chinese Leaf Warblers.
At the back of the army huts where the rangers set up a feeding tray for the birds we found Rufous-gorgetted Flycatcher, Himalayan Bluetail, Large Niltava and Pallas Leaf Warbler.
The last six kilometers to the summit was declared a safety hazard due to a huge gaping hole near the end of the road, so we opted to go on foot and see how far we could get before having to turn around and head back down the mountain before it got dark.
At our first stop we ran into a couple of birders who had just photographed a White-gorgetted Flycatcher, who also pointed out a spot for Little Niltava and Red faced Liocichla. We found the Niltava but dipped on the Liocichla and flycatcher.
The summit continued to remain foggy and spotting birds was a challenge but our persistence allowed us to twitch Striated, Mountain and Flavescent Bulbul, Orange bellied Leafbird, Grey cheeked Fulvetta, White throated Fantail and Ashy Warbler among other things.
A Chestnut headed Tesia called from a gulley near the road but our attempts to lure it out proved futile.
With about a kilometer to go to the summit we decided to call it quits and head back to the vehicle.
Back at the ranger camp the weather quickly made a turn for the worse as low-lying clouds rolled in and the dense fog made birding completely impossible. Faced with this predicament, we opted to head down the mountain and visit the rice fields again to see if we could connect with the Jerdon’s Bushchat.
On the drive down we ran into a party of Mountain Bamboo Partridge feeding on the side of the road and were able to get very good looks at both the males and females.
At the rice fields we searched again for the bushchat but instead came up with Taiga Flycatcher and Long tailed Minivet.
On a hill near the army checkpoint we encountered a male Red Junglefowl which could not make up it’s mind which side of the road it wanted to exit on and was nearly run over.
At the checkpoint we stopped to look for the Red faced Liocichla but the fog was so bad we abandoned the idea and headed down to the Mae Kok river to look for the Jerdon’s Bushchat which was rumored to be hanging out around there.
It was nearly six PM when we arrived at Tha Thorn. We followed the directions outlined in Nick Moran’s report but failed to find the bushchat, possibly due to the waning light. Instead we encountered Asian Pied Starling, White Wagtail, Common Sandpiper, Common Myna, White Vented Myna and Scarlet backed Flowerpecker.
That night we enjoyed a northeastern-style dinner in Fang, after which we braved the 1700-meter climb to Doi Angkang through an impenetrable wall of fog, using the yellow median strip in the middle of the road and Steve’s GPS as our guide up the mountain. We were lucky to have made it safely; we later learned that the previous week, a van had crashed on the cliff while attempting to reach the summit in thick fog, resulting in the deaths of nine people.
The campsites and smaller hotels were all filled to overflowing (literally) with Thai tourists enjoying an extended holiday weekend (Constitution Day) and with little hope of finding any available accommodation, Steve suggested we head to the sprawling Angkang Nature Resort. Our initial request was met with a curt “no room” reply, but at the last minute there was a cancellation and we were able to get the perfect room for the night. –God is good!
Day 2: Doi Angkang
The temperature was a chilling nine degrees when we woke up at 6 AM and not wanting to miss the early morning birds (yet at the same time not skip out on a delicious buffet breakfast), decided to head out and do some birding for a few hours before coming back to the hotel to eat and check out.
Our destination was the Mae Per Forest trail, which was quite muddy from the consistent rains the mountain had been receiving for the last three days. Finding the trail was not too difficult but after entering main trail we made the mistake of heading down a path on the right side of the track thinking it was part of the main track. This mistake would later turn out to be a case of “all things work together for good” as we were rewarded with excellent views of Chestnut Headed Tesia, Bay Woodpecker, Mountain Tailorbird and Chestnut crowned Laughingthrush.
Birds heard along the trail included Pigmy Wren Babbler, Mountain Imperial Pigeon and Red faced Liocichla.
At 9 AM we headed back to the Angkang Nature Resort to enjoy our well-earned breakfast and check out of the hotel. While waiting for the trolley to arrive we found Blue Whistling Thrush, Long tailed Shrike and Plain Flowerpecker around the trees near the bungalows.
By then it was late morning and we decided to have a second go at Mae Per Trail in an attempt to find the Red Faced Liocichla, but thick fog made birding impossible so we headed back to the road where we encountered a congregation of birds feeding on nectar from the flowering trees. Here we found Black throated Sunbird, Green tailed Sunbird, Chestnut Flanked White Eye, Blue winged Minla and Chestnut fronted Shrike-Babbler.
After that we headed down to the Baan Luang Resort where we met the owner, Khun Tawatchai, a bird lover with an engaging personality. He showed us to the back of the resort where we found a single River Chat and a flock of Brown breasted Bulbul. His resort, though simple, is a place few birders will want to pass up, as in normal weather conditions the resort offers plenty of good-quality species.
The poor weather conditions in the higher altitudes were wreaking havoc on our itinerary so Steve suggested we move down and try the farmlands near the village of Baan Koom. On Nick Upton’s site this is referred to as the “farmland trail”.
There was a lot of movement on the road when we first arrived, with motorcycles roaring along on the dirt track but as we got further down the road the birding began to pick up. Our birdiest spot was at the crest of a hill about 2 kilometers from the village where we connected with Crested Finchbill, Red Whiskered, Ashy and Sooty headed Bulbul, Common Rosefinch and Common Buzzard among other things.
On the walk back we stopped at an area lined with scrub and tried calling for a White gorgetted Flycatcher but instead attracted a female Rufous bellied Niltava.
A few minutes later Steve spotted a gorgeous bird streaking through the scrub and after closer inspection found it to be a Daurian Redstart!
The last bird seen on the road was a single male Black throated Sunbird.
By then it was almost 3 PM and we decided to make a quick stopover at the Kings Projects to look for some thrushes before beginning the long drive to Doi Intanon.
In the Kings Project we headed off to the “Rock Amphitheater” behind the restaurant and found a single Blue Whistling Thrush and a few Olive backed Pipits. We decided to hang around a little while longer to see if anything else would show and before long Steve spotted a single Scaly Thrush sitting quietly in the tree above.
Next we headed down to the administrative offices where Khun Tawatchai mentioned we could find a rare Black breasted Thrush. At first we had a hard time figuring out where the stakeout was and we almost gave up when from out of nowhere a single male White tailed Robin showed up only a few feet from where Steve was standing! I ran back to grab my camera and upon returning, found Steve lining up a shot of a beautiful Black Breasted Thrush!
The birds must have been fed regularly by photographers or birders as they continuously landed on a nearby log, inspecting it for worms that we might have placed there for them.
By 5 PM it was time to head off and as we departed from the King’s Project Site, we were overjoyed to finally see the rich golden glow of glorious sunlight bathing the entire valley. It would be the first time on our trip that we encountered any sun, and thankfully it was not our last.
A last-minute stopover at the army camp for the White browed Laughingthrush and Red faced Liochichla ended abruptly when we were told the base was no longer open for visitors, even those with a request as simple as being allowed to look for birds near the drains behind the camp kitchen.
The long drive to Intanon took us about five hours due to construction on the road and being caught behind slow trucks but we were able to spend the time talking and catching up on the past two years.
We finally arrived at Chomtong at around 9 PM and checked into the Rachapreuk Hotel which offered us a deluxe room for 550 baht a night.
Day 3: Doi Intanon
We were back on the road by 5.15 AM and after paying the entry fees at the gate, quickly made our way to the summit. It was still dark when we arrived and we were horrified to find the area was crawling with Thai tourists of all shapes and sizes, bundled up in blankets and oversized coats as they swarmed about in the 4-degree chill. –Wasn’t this supposed to be a work day for everyone?
As soon as the sun began to rise we headed straight to the bog where we met a flock of Chestnut crowned Laughingthrushes. In a tree nearby we encountered a pair of Chestnut eared Shrike- Babbler and down by the memorial we flushed out a Blue Whistling Thrush. Other than that the area was rather quiet.
Steve suggested that we stick to the forest edge near the main road since it was warmer and seemed to have more bird activity than down in the cold bog. It proved to be a wise move as shortly after emerging from the trail we encountered a party of Chestnut tailed Minla feeding on berries along the roadside.
Other birds seen included Flavescent Bulbul, Green tailed Sunbird, Gould’s Sunbird, Rufous winged Fulvetta and a female Himalayan Bluetail.
At around 9 AM we headed down to the Kaeo Mae Parn trail but after judging from our limited success around the bog, we opted to head down to KM 37 and try out the Jeep Track.
There was a wall of construction near the checkpoint and the entrance to the trail was so overgrown we almost missed it.
A few feet into the trail we ran into a birdwave which brought in Golden Babbler, Yellow bellied Fantail, Grey cheeked Fulvetta, Rufous Winged Fulvetta, Yellow eared Tit, Chestnut vented Nuthatch, Black throated Sunbird and Grey throated Babbler. It was a melee for the first ten minutes as Steve and I tried to keep up with the volume of birds coming through.
Encouraged by our initial success, we marched down the first 300 meters of the trail and into relative silence until we passed a birder from England named Chris who reported seeing around six Slaty bellied Tesia, White throated Laughingthrush, Red Headed Trogon and Green Cochoa further down the trail.
Inspired by the thought of encountering these treats we dove deeper into the bush. Not more than twenty paces after speaking with Chris we heard our first pair of Slaty bellied Tesias in some shrubbery near the trail and shortly after that we were able to call one in with a taped playback.
800 meters down the track we ran into another birdwave which had had all the same birds as the first wave we encountered, with the addition of Brown throated Treecreeper, Chestnut capped Warbler, Lesser racket tailed Drongo, White browed Shrike-Babbler and Short billed Minivet.
Other birds we encountered on the trail included Blue Whistling Thrush, Long tailed Minivet, Hair crest Drongo and a number of phylloscopus warblers.
Upon returning to the main road we realized we only had a few hours left to burn. We weighed our options and decided to try going for two more specials: Plumbelous Redstart and Slaty backed Forktail. Since we were in the area, I suggested we should try Sai Leuang Waterfall at Mae Pan Camp on the way to Mae Chaem to see if we could see the birds there.
Along the road to Mae Chaem we passed a stretch of forest where Blue Pitta was heard calling, but our attempts to find it came up empty.
At the campsite in Mae Pan we found White and Grey Wagtails foraging around the carpark and soaring over the bungalows Steve photographed a raptor which we both had trouble distinguishing from the field guides. It later turned out to be Crested Goshawk.
Down the short trail to the falls we found the ever-present Slaty backed Fortail and after a few minutes of patience were rewarded with a brilliant River Chat.
With time running out we decided to stop for a late lunch (3 PM) at Mr. Daeng’s and see what birds were present around his lodge.
At the restaurant we had lunch overlooking a wooded area where a single Lesser Shortwing was seen feeding near the drains, and Mr. Daeng’s daughter told us that a Dark sided Thrush was also present in the area.
Khun Daeng admitted in an impromptu conversation that the season had been relatively quiet and many birders were complaining about the lack of activity around the summit, although birds could still be found around the waterfalls and along the river courses.
On the way out of the park we stopped at both Sritan and Vacharatan Waterfalls in search of the Plumbeous Redstart but came up empty both times.
After exiting the park Steve mentioned that he still had not yet seen the Ashy Woodswallow so we stopped at a field around Chomtong and twitched the woodswallow, Spotted Dove, Common and White Vented Myna, Little, Intermediate and Cattle Egret, Black Drongo and Barn Swallow. The highlight of the stop was a single male Pied Harrier which flew overhead in the waning light.
That evening we made our way to the airport and got our connecting flight back to Phuket.
One might say that we did not spend enough time at each of the sites we visited, and while I agree that for each of these three sites to be fully documented one should spent at least three to five days at each location. However, because of our limited time frame, we were left with no other option and for that matter I’d say we did quite well. The weather was a definite obstacle and no doubt we would have fared better had it not been so foggy and misty the first two days.
Despite that we ended up with a list of over 100 species, with 61 lifers for Steve and 21 lifers for me.
Special thanks to Steve Potter who sponsored the expedition and covered all the expenses incurred during our travels.
For a complete list of birds seen, please click on this link.