Some birders come to Thailand armed with nothing more than a pair of binoculars and a Thai bird checklist, just happy for anything they can find.
Others come with a long list of “must haves” and a relentless desire to twitch.
Perhaps you feel you’d fit somewhere between those two categories; you aren’t really “dying” to see any particular bird, but still you would like to see something special on your trip to Thailand.
Below I’ve compiled a list of the most popular targets for birders visiting the south. This goal of this list is to help birders decide what their itinerary should be and what sites they should visit. Doubtless, there will be days when one dips on a species they are after, but at least birders can be relieved that they aren’t looking in a place which may be completely void of that particular species.
Times and tastes will alter as the years roll by and I will adjust this list whenever there is a change. Please feel free to send in your suggestions or comments as well, they are certainly most welcome!
Special thanks to Ian Dugdale, a fellow birder in southern Thailand who helped read over the list and made suggestions for certain species which may be of interest to birders.
Note: In this article, NP stands for National Park and WS stands for Wildlife Sanctuary.
1. Gurneys Pitta
Since its rediscovery, the Gurney’s has been in high demand by almost every birder who visits southern Thailand. Listed as “Critically Endangered” in IUCN’s listings, the local Thai population stands at less than 20 breeding pairs and appears to be in decline.
Khao Nor Chuchi is currently the only place in the world to find these birds and even then the chances of finding this bird without the help of the famed Yothin Meekaeo are very low.
2. Malaysian Rail Babbler
An extremely shy and elusive creature, this bird only inhabits the most pristine and untouched wildernesses. Once widespread throughout the south (one report surfacing from Baan Nai Chong in Krabi in the mid 90’s) the bird has slowly disappeared from many prime locations and was thought to be lost until it showed up in Krung Ching a few years ago, sparking a mass pilgrimage of local and international birders to this lonely corner of Doi Luang National Park.
This bird is found in either Krung Ching or Hala Bala WS, the latter being perhaps the easier location to find this incredible species.
3. White fronted Scops Owl
When news of this bird being discovered in Khao Nor Chuchi was leaked onto popular birdwatching websites, birdwatchers from all around the world flocked to Thailand to twitch this rare specimen, prompting the bird to retreat to a new hiding place, away from the bright lights and flashing bulbs of photographers and twitchers alike.
Today the bird is found with some difficulty at Hala Bala Wildlife Sanctuary, although unconfirmed reports have placed the bird in Krung Ching and the Trang Botanical Gardens. Some birds have also been recorded at Baan Krang campsite in Kaeng Krachan National Park.
4. Javan Frogmouth
Truth be told, the Javan Frogmouth is a fairly common bird; however, rarely finds it’s way onto very many birdwatchers’ lists as it is only active in the evenings and at night. Its call resembles the maniacal laugh of an evil witch, capable of spooking the boots off of any superstitious Thai person within earshot of it.
There are known stakeouts for the bird in Sri Phang Nga NP and Khao Nor Chuchi, the latter being the most convenient site to twitch this species. It can also be found in abundance at Krung Ching, Khao Bantat and Hala-Bala WS.
5. Mangrove Pitta
Restricted to the mangrove forests of the west coast, the Mangrove Pitta is a species many birdwatchers will happily go out of their way to search for. Closely resembling the Blue winged Pitta, this beautiful bird tends to forage with the rise and fall of the tides as during those times its favorite foods are more active and easier to find.
The Krabi Mangrove Boardwalk and Merritime Hotel are still good options for locating this bird although I would admit to have better luck finding the birds at the mangrove patch outside Phang Nga town or along the boardwalk at Baan Bang Paht near Phang Nga municipality. Be forewarned; just because you are in the right habitat doesn’t mean the birds will be around there. This is a very difficult bird to find.
6. Nicobar Pigeon
Endemic to the islands of the Andaman region, this pigeon is a bird one must physically encounter in order to appreciate its true beauty. The bird is endangered in Thailand and still suffers from hunting and the cage bird trade.
The Nicobar Pigeon is found only on the islands of Similan NP and Surin NP off the coast of Phang Nga and there are unconfirmed reports that the bird may exist on Phi Phi and some other remote islands in the Phang Nga – Phuket region. Recently the bird has also been discovered on Koh Chang in Trat on the east coast as well.
7. Banded Pitta
Also known as the “King of the Forest”, this pitta is arguably the most beautiful of all pitta species in Thailand. A fairly common specimen, this bird is best seen during the months of April-June when the birds are breeding.
8. Helmeted Hornbill
9. Brown winged Kingfisher
The mangrove nature trail in Krabi town is perhaps the easiest place to find this bird although it does exist in other mangrove areas and can also be seen at Ao Phang Nga NP and Muang Mai Plantation and Ao Por in Phuket.
10. Chestnut naped Forktail
Often its not that the bird is rare but the fact that it is beautiful which gives it a spot on many a birdwatchers’ wanted lists. The Chestnut naped Forktail is fairly common throughout the south and inhabits creeks and waterfalls in national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and even municipal waterworks.
Sri Phang Nga NP, Hala Bala WS and Krung Ching seem to be the most reliable place for this bird although it has also been frequented at Chong Fah Waterfall in Khao Lak, Khao Bantat in Trang and Khao Sok NP in Surat Thani.
Other popular southern birds which didn’t crack the top ten:
11. Hooded Pitta
The Hooded Pitta, like the Blue winged Pitta, is a wet season breeding visitor which shows up in the south and can be spotted in most forest habitats. Although most pitta are terrestrial birds, the Hooded Pitta prefers the safety of the trees, calling from high branches and rarely making its way to the forest floor.
The Hooded Pitta are found in forests and national parks all over the south, such as Sri Phang Nga NP, Sa Nang Manora Forest Park, Khao Prataow NP, Khao Nor Chuchi, Trang Botanical Gardens and more. They can be heard calling from March – June and are easily drawn in with the aid of a taped call.
12. Bay Owl
The Bay Owl is a mysterious bird which not only has an eerie call but also looks like an alien creature when confronted at night in a thick forest. The bird inhabits a wide variety of terrain and can often be found in rubber plantation as well as secondary forest.
The Bay Owl didn’t make the top ten due difficulty in locating the specimen; despite the fact that they are fairly common birds which are found throughout the south, securing a reliable stakeout for this bird is very difficult. Bay Owls have more recently been spotted in Khao Nor Chuchi and on the outskirts of Khao Prataow NP in Phuket.
13. Ruddy Kingfisher
The Ruddy Kingfisher is most commonly found at the mangrove nature walkway near Krabi town, although it has also been spotted in mangroves around Phuket and Phang Nga.
14. Rhinoceros Hornbill
One of the largest hornbill species in the world, this massive bird is hard to miss as it flies through the open skies, the sound of its flapping wings discernable from hundreds of meters away. Often a target for hunters and trophy-seekers, the range of this bird has been restricted to a few forest strongholds along the southwest coast and the extreme tip of southern Thailand.
The bird is best encountered in Hala Bala Wildlife Sanctuary or Budo – Sunghai Padi National Park in Narathiwat, although it is suspected there is a small population of birds residing in the thick forests of Khao Bantat in Trang.
15. Green Broadbill
The Green Broadbill is restricted to the south of Thailand and ranks as one of the most beautiful. Its feathers appear to be an ordinary shade of lime until the bird is photographed with a flash; then the feathers take on a metallic green color which is bright enough to make anyone wince.
16. Buffy Fish Owl
Owls are not always easy to find unless one knows where to look. In the case of this bird, a well-known stakeout at Krung Ching in Nakorn Sri Tammarat has many birders happily cueing up to collect their long-awaited twitch.
The Buffy Fish Owl is fairly widespread in the south and can also be found with some difficulty in Phang Nga (mangrove walkway), Sri Phang Nga NP, Krung Ching and Krabi (the Merritime Hotel). The owl is easier to see on a night boat trip around Cheio Laan Lake in Surat Thani or at Klong Saen Wildlife Sanctuary, but both locations are rather remote and hard to access.
17. Chinese Egret
Perhaps the least known of the four white egret species, only a handful of birds show up in Thailand during the winter months, giving birders the headache of trying to locate where they may be lurking. The species is often hard to differentiate from the white morph Pacific Reef Egret and Intermediate Egret and takes some time to properly identify.
Chinese Egrets have been recorded at Laem Pakarang, the Krabi river mouth, Koh Libong and along the east coast of Phuket Island. A small number of birds show up around Samut Sakorn and Pak Talae in Petchaburi and it seems most birders are content to look for them around there.
18. River Lapwing
The River Lapwing, like its name suggests, is found primarily along the banks of large rivers and other quiet waterways. Although immensely popular with birders in the south, this species failed to make the Top Ten List as it can also be found in the north and parts of the central region.
The River Lapwing is commonly seen along the banks of the Phang Nga river, from Takuapah to Phang Nga town. It also can be found at Thai Muang Golf Course and north towards Ranong.
19. Red bearded Bee Eater
The Red Bearded Bee Eater is present in many national parks but most commonly encountered at Khao Sok NP, Krung Ching and Hala Bala WS. Many birders also twitch this bird as far north as Kaeng Krachan NP.
20. Forest Wagtail
A very common bird which always receives a warm welcome wherever it is seen, the Forest Wagtail is a winter visitor which can be found in almost any forest habitat, from Sri Phang Nga NP to Khao Sok NP, Krung Ching, Khao Nor Chu Chi and Hala Bala WS.
A few other birds which are in demand but are just too hard to find:
1. Garnet Pitta
Many birders ask about the possibility of seeing this fantastic bird and my usual response is to direct them to Kinabalu or Taman Negara National Parks in Malaysia. Birders will have a higher chance of seeing this bird there than in Thailand.
The Garnet Pitta is a very rare bird in Thailand and known to exist in only tiny patch of lowland forest in Bala sector of Hala Bala Wildlife Sanctuary in the deep south.
2. Giant Pitta
The Giant Pitta is still present in a few sites in southern Thailand but most serious birders prefer to head down to Malaysia or Borneo in search of it. The species is very rare in Thailand and sightings are too few and sporadic to make the search worthwhile.
3. Beach Thick-Knee
Little is known about the habits of this elusive bird. Most birders who are after it soon lose interest as the bird’s movements and range are still quite unknown. The bird prefers the most isolated and undisturbed beaches, although it was once found roosting at high tide near the populated beach of Laem Pakarang.
Surin island NP offers the best chance to find this bird, although it has also been recorded in large numbers at the Similans on island 3 which is strictly off limits to any visitors unless accompanied by the Royal Thai Navy.
4. Masked Finfoot
The minute a finfoot is sighted anywhere in the world, birders can literally be seen scrambling to airline ticket counters, desperate to snag a long-awaited tick. The mystical bird is a dream twitch for birders and a dinner delicacy for non-birders, so either way the bird is in high demand throughout Asia.
The once-reliable 1990’s stakeout in Krabi has long since been dead and there has been no other known stakeout for the bird in the south since. Most recent records have placed the bird in Khao Yai in Korat and in Doi Saket in Chiang Mai.
5. Lesser Adjutant Stork
The Lesser Adjutant has become a very rare resident due to hunting pressure and destruction on habitat. This bird breeds in southern Thailand and tends to prefer the safety of the mangroves, where is can sometimes be seen feeding in small groups in the mud at low tide.
6. Great Argus
The Great Argus should have made the Top-10 list but instead ended up in the basement due to the high level of difficulty in tracking down this amazingly large bird. Few local birders have ever seen this bird in the wild and most who have will attest to having spent hours sitting in a hide waiting for the bird to appear. By no means a rare bird, this species is widely distributed throughout most of southern Thailand and often ends up in soup pots in rural restaurants.
Khao Sok NP and Krung Ching are perhaps the two best places to begin your search for this enigmatic species.
7. Rufous Collared Kingfisher
The Rufous Collared Kingfisher is highly endangered due to loss of habitat and it’s knack for picking only the most pristine of forests. A jungle dweller which prefers critters over fish, this kingfisher is more often heard rather than seen.
Sri Phang Nga NP and Khao Nor Chuchi are both places where the bird can be found but most birders prefer to head up to Khao Sok NP and make the 7 kilometer trek; even then, this species is not always guaranteed to put on a show.
8. Black necked Stork
A large and conspicuous bird which was sighted in Haat Chao Mai in the early 90’s, the Black necked Stork has by now been exterminated from Thai soil, most likely having been served up for dinner by some local farmer some two decades ago.
The species has not been seen for many years and is most likely never to be seen again.
9. Storms Stork
Like the Black necked Stork, the Storms Stork was last seen in the early 80’s before the construction of the Rajaprapa Dam was completed. Since then its former haunts have been flooded out and the bird is thought to have been extirpated.
A camera trap placed by forest rangers obtained a few photos of this bird in the same area only a few years ago but still, the chances of anyone seeing it in real-life are very, very slim.
Once fairly common, nowadays many species of seabirds are getting harder and harder to find. Brown Boobies, Red footed Boobies, Masked Boobies, Short tailed Shearwater, Wedge tailed Shearwater and Sooty Tern are all species which are seen south of Thailand in neighboring Malaysia but for the most part are absent from Thai waters.
Perhaps it was the hunting pressure or theft of eggs by fishermen? Perhaps it is a lack of pelagic research trips in the deep waters off the Andaman Sea? No one can say for sure but for now, many of these birds and their status will remain a hidden mystery.